Libraries, Censorship, and Social Protest

Article excerpt

American society has long supported a tradition of social protest as one of the First Amendment liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. At the same time, our culture has largely resisted governmental censorship of information as a relic of the kind of authoritarianism we have been taught to oppose practically since birth. Librarians sometimes find themselves caught between these two freedoms--the freedom to protest and the freedom from censorship.

Librarians generally think of censorship in pejorative terms, as does most of society. We view it, and rightly so, as an abrogation of our rights as citizens of a free democracy. However, the defense of intellectual freedom, like all human efforts, has its limits. These limits are usually tested, sometimes severely so, by social protest.

All of us have been exposed to the varieties of social protest that occur in our society. Whether it is strikers protesting alleged greed in a corporation, farm workers boycotting table grapes, civil rights advocates marching against discrimination, or anti-abortion demonstrators picketing a clinic, we have all seen and/or experienced the joys and rigors of social protest. In a free democracy we are allowed--even encouraged--to express our disagreement through such vehicles as letters to the editor, public demonstrations, call-in radio shows, and political activism.

Most of us take for granted the moral validity of most kinds of protests. We will uphold a person's right to publicly contest an issue even if we hold a different view. But, if censorship is always wrong, doesn't it follow that any form of social protest whose aim is objecting to or denouncing library materials is also unwarranted? How can we justify an individual's right to challenge a particular book in a particular library if we would never allow the book in question to ever be removed?

Justify my challenge

Some approaches to materials challenges strike a balance between 1) the individual's right to protest the inclusion of a particular title in the library, 2) the librarian's responsibility to select materials based on objective criteria rather than on personal beliefs or biases, and 3) the institution's right to remove inappropriate material after a reasonable review process. For example, according to the Whole Library Handbook ("What to Do about Censorship in the Public Schools," Chicago: American Library Association, 1991, p. 389), the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union's guidelines for dealing with censorship in the public schools states, in part:

Parents and other citizens living in the school district have the right...to make specific objections to the choice of instructional materials, educational resources, and teaching methods used in the schools.... In a democratic society, where it is natural for parents and others to have concern for the education of children, it is reasonable to expect that there will be questions and complaints regarding content of educational resources, class programs, and teaching methods. Such complaints are allowable in our society and should never be labeled as inappropriate or harmful in and of themselves.

Though such a balanced perspective is sometimes sought after, too often anti-censorship rhetoric seems to stifle social protest. A philosophy that labels every book challenge as wrong precludes the notion that a protester might possibly have a valid concern.

War of words

The choice of words used in censorship reports is instructive. Often, words like "attacks," "assaults," "fight," "enemies," and "frightening" are used to describe protests against library materials. It is true that some complaints degenerate into personal attacks or even violence, but many, if not most, protests are peaceful and civil. To use war metaphors in describing a protest is to fan the flames and opt for polarization.

Public statements by staunch defenders of intellectual freedom sometimes use hyperbole to bolster their point. …