Magazine article American Libraries

Are We Free to Talk Honestly about Intellectual Freedom?

Magazine article American Libraries

Are We Free to Talk Honestly about Intellectual Freedom?

Article excerpt

The debate on filtering the Internet to block patron access to pornographic Web sites has become quite troublesome. Actually, it's not a debate: It's a litmus test that measures commitment to intellectual freedom.

If you toe the professional party line of giving children and young adults free and unfettered access to every Xrated Web site that the Net has to offer, you're a good guy, a defender of the First Amendment, and a champion of intellectual freedom.

If you decide that in your particular local situation it is more appropriate from a public-relations and family-values standpoint or more prudent from a political-expediency standpoint to use blocking software, you're a bad guy, a craven coward who has violated sacred professional principles by caving into pressure from closed-minded conservative censors.

Not only is this name calling (and you can imagine the names I'll be called as a result of this column) a weak substitute for engaging in rational discourse, it is also a wellspring of hypocrisy. I have labored in the library vineyard for 27 years and the greatest disappointment I have had about our profession is not our low pay and long hours but rather our unwillingness to respect the intellectual freedom of those who want to express themselves openly about intellectual freedom.

On all other hot topics - technology, outsourcing, and the future of the book - there is little or no peer pressure to restrain your desire to rant and rave to your heart's content. But if you really care about your reputation in the profession, you better watch what you say about intellectual freedom. With just a few words of dissent you'll be branded a censor, and in library circles you're better off being accused of being a mass murderer than a censor. At least those accused of mass murder are given due process. It's the greatest of ironies that intellectual freedom is the only professional issue in which it is not safe to exercise your intellectual freedom.

All points of view that fall short of our extreme "give everyone unfettered access to everything" party line are branded as dangerous heresies that will lead us down the slippery slope to a repressive society.

Of course, that's what we say. What we do is something far different. In public we preach full access; in private we censor. We get away with this because we call our censorship "selection."

The best recent example of this hypocrisy was how public librarians finessed the sticky issue of Madonna's best-selling sex book. …

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