Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Freedom of Library Speech

I've been struggling with how to write this post, and I'm still struggling with the concepts. The idea of freedom of speech is foundational, especially how it intersects with libraries and librarianship, but I'm still working to wrap my head around it. There are a lot of great pieces out there about library values, such as a post written by Meredith Farkas. Then there's the whole Operation 451 effort that is also along these lines. I admire these, and am - to some extent - using them as a springboard for this piece. However, the reason I've struggled with this is that freedom of speech, especially the library's role in that speech, is at best muddied waters. (Sorry for using such a cliched descriptor, but "muddied waters" is still the most apt phrase.) What I'm trying to say is that my writing here is my way of working through my thoughts.

First, we have that infuriating but also beautiful document, The Bill of Rights, that established - among other things - the idea of freedom of speech. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Holy heck, yeah! Give us, the people, the right to yell at our Government, to speak up and out. And let us be exceptionally and explicitly clear here: this prohibits the government, not your neighbor Bob, from curtailing your speech. Bob can stuff it, anyway.

But whenever I think about the first amendment, I think about the fact that there are legal and just exceptions to that freedom. Child pornography is not covered by the first amendment, and neither is hate speech. That makes sense, though. Things that will lead to or are included in committing a crime are generally indefensible, right? But then we come to community standards and who's writing the laws. Things that are legal aren't always right or just.

Add to this the fact that libraries do selectively censor - no matter what anyone says to the contrary. I know of one big library that has some porn, but it's in their special collection and is tied to an alum, but your average library doesn't have Debbie Does Dallas in their DVD collection or Penthouse in with their periodicals. We spend our money as best we can to support the efforts and needs of our communities, and sometimes whether by purposeful or unthinking omission, things get left out. No matter how much students at my school might joke about wanting Playboy, we don't have it (somebody added it to a poll we ran asking students which popular press magazines they wanted here).

Even with all this, I still believe providing access is one of the most important things a library can do. Like it says in Article V. of the Library Bill of Rights: "A person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views." At my library, we serve our community to the best of our ability, but it's a balancing act. Yes, all students and faculty and staff are welcome, but if someone is being overly disruptive, violent, or is caught destroying library property, they will be escorted out of the building.

It's not easy to find my way through this issue, but something this important shouldn't be easy. We do need to think about those who are holding the purse strings, but we can't always bend to their dictates. We do need to consider community standards, but sometimes the community is flat out wrong. We do need to protect and provide access to speech, but not hate speech.

I guess what I'm trying to say is I'm still trying to suss out where I stand on all of this, on the interplay of community and legality and access. I'm trying to figure it out both personally and professionally. I know believe in freedom of speech, but not as an absolute. I know it seems like a lifetime ago, but really it was just two year past that we were saying:

I hope you all will join me in a careful consideration of what we mean by library core values, but most especially what we mean by freedom of speech.

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