Magazine article American Libraries

In Defense of America's Freedoms: An Offshoot of ALA Celebrates 35 Years of "Societal Good"

Magazine article American Libraries

In Defense of America's Freedoms: An Offshoot of ALA Celebrates 35 Years of "Societal Good"

Article excerpt

Reporting on his own 1735 trial for seditious libel for his disrespect of the Crown, colonial printer and New York Weekly Journal Editor John Peter Zenger wrote that when the jury brought in a verdict of not guilty "there were three huzzahs in the hall." Americans who prize their press and speech freedoms have been cheering ever since. Zenger's release, after 10 months in jail for publishing articles critical of New York Colonial Governor William Cosby, was a milestone on the way to the Bill of Rights, with its First Amendment admonition that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...."

These 14 words were a second American revolution in their own right, indeed a revolution in human affairs, though one still sadly incomplete in most of the world. For all that the principle is embraced in the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the rights to free speech and a free press remain far from universal. Few nations even approach the breadth of protected expression that is secured by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

Even here, our own freedoms to publish, distribute, and openly debate information and opinion remain under stress. Free speech is perhaps the purest example of the liberty whose price is "eternal vigilance," abolitionist Wendell Phillips said.

That vigilance is maintained in large part by a number of organizations committed to the free speech that too many Americans--often in positions of political power--would honor in principle while undermining it in practice. Among those defenders, count the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, and the Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF). Established in 1969 by the American Library Association, the FTRF was formed in recognition of the fact that a robust defense of the First Amendment is fundamental to the very essence of libraries as the crucial nexus that offers unimpeded access to society's wisdom, wit, folly, and frolic in all their confounding and sometimes cussed variety.

An offshoot of ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), the FTRF has been in court more or less constantly throughout its 35-year history and currently has more than a dozen active cases. The FTRF concentrates on issues that impact librarians and library practices but additionally joins with other First Amendment defenders in broader free-speech cases. The foundation recognizes that any chipping away at the First Amendment weakens it.

The real protectors

In its first year, the FTRF helped to defend a librarian who had been fired from the Missouri State Library for writing a letter to a local newspaper protesting the suppression of an underground newspaper. It helped a Maryland man challenge his conviction for selling an allegedly obscene issue of the Washington Free Press; a state appellate court overturned the conviction. And the foundation helped defray the financial hit that the city librarian of Martinsville, Virginia, had taken after coming under fire for challenging the constitutionality of a religious course taught in the city schools.

ALA's OIF set up shop in 1967 to chart censorship trends and alert librarians to them, as well as to provide resource materials to local libraries that found items in their collections being challenged. The office could back up local librarians with national reviews of besieged books and suggest effective talking points. With ready access to such reinforcement, local librarians were both more willing and better able to defend the content of their shelves. Judith Krug, director of OIF from its beginning, says, "When people began to realize they had support here, they began to develop backbones. "Before then, Krug says, local librarians who tried to resist pressure to reject or remove books were "the lone voice in the wilderness."

Understandably, many shied away from that role. …

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