intellectual freedom begins at home

1 october 2003

by will manley - © american library association 2003

among the flurry of supreme court decisions that were handed down at the end of the last session in early july was a ruling that received critical reaction from many librarians.� the supreme court's decision upholding the right of the federal government to make the filtering of children's-room computers a requirement for libraries that receive federal monies was, in particular, a major setback to the american library association's office of intellectual freedom.  ala devoted a great deal of time and money to a vigorous legal battle challenging the right of the feds to mandate filtering.� at first blush, the supreme court decision would seem to be a setback in the crusade for the rights of access for millions of minors throughout america.� when it was first announced, the professional library reaction was both swift and negative.� some referred to the decision as an "electronic book burning" others called it a grave act of censorship.� an ala spokesperson predicted that many libraries would consider rejecting federal money rather than installing filters.

some librarians were so upset that their criticism went beyond a point-by-point critique of the actual decision and elevated into a personal attack on the values of the justices themselves.� according to these librarians, this was one more example of the narrow-minded thinking of a court packed with ultra-right-wing appointees from the reagan and bush i eras.� they were quick to point out that these "fundamentalist" justices were the very same judges who stole the presidency from al gore and handed it to bush ii on a silver platter.� they overreached, however, when they asserted that in upholding the constitutionality of filtering the internet, the supreme court was now validating bush's conservative social agenda.� these critics had conveniently forgotten that the children's internet protection act had actually been promulgated by both the clinton/gore administration and a democratic senate.

it is perfectly legitimate to attack the supreme court decision on the basis of one's view of the first amendment and how it applies to a library patron's right of access to pornography.� it is also appropriate to condemn the decision on the basis of the fact that some filters unintentionally block access to nonpornographic sites.� it is not, however, valid to criticize the decision on the grounds that the rehnquist supreme court is dominated by conservative judges who are out of step with mainstream america.� consider the other rulings that were released by this "conservative" court at the same time as the library-filtering decision.� affirmative-action selection techniques were upheld in determining university enrollment, a california law aimed at bringing justice to child molesters was overturned, a death penalty was struck down because a defense attorney was deemed to be "ineffective," and a texas sodomy law was ruled unconstitutional.� are these the decisions of a conservative court?

the fact of the matter is that several of the justices appointed by reagan and bush have turned out to be liberal on a good many legal and societal issues.� as a result, the supreme court that we have now is one with a good deal of balance.� at times it's conservative, moderate, and even liberal.� in that regard, it reflects the variable moods of mainstream america.� it would appear that in the case of keeping children away from internet pornography, it is the library profession, not the supreme court, which has distanced itself from the mainstream.

our profession's "anything goes" view of intellectual freedom simply does not square with the values of the communities we serve.� while librarians were blasting the supreme court as a band of censors, parents from maine to california were thanking the justices for protecting their children from the excesses of sex on the web.� this is how one grandmother, who visits her public library twice a week with her grandchildren, explained it: "sex is something that's like a gun; dangerous if you don't know how to use it.� i'm all for them putting restrictions in a public place."� representative istook of oklahoma, one of the drafters of the children's internet protection act, said that the ruling "will mean libraries can continue to fulfill their mission because parents won't need to be reluctant about dropping off their kids for an afternoon at the library."� [ more here.]

journalists have traditionally joined hands with librarians in the cause of advocating intellectual freedom.� in this case, however, that support was not there for us.� the local newspaper that i read every day is quite liberal in its editorial point of view, but on the issue of filtering the internet for children, its stand was clear and conservative:� "children must have access to libraries and all that they provide.� at the same time, they require sensible protection from a cyberworld that knows no limits."� our other local paper was even more forceful in its opposition to ala's party line:� "these days librarians want to let it all hang out.� it's free speech all the way--which explains why the american library association is not happy with monday's ruling by the us supreme court on the subject of internet pornography.� free speech, of course, is precious.� but as courts have noted over and over again, it cannot be completely unfettered.� and one fetter that almost everyone agrees is necessary is the one that keeps pornography out of children's hands."

everyone, that is, but the library profession.� why is there such a disconnect between our profession and everyone else on this particular issue?� more specifically, how could we have allowed ourselves to be put in such a publicly disadvantageous position as defending the right of children to access pornography?� the answer is simple and ironic.� our profession preaches intellectual freedom but does not tolerate its practice within our own ranks.� librarians imbued with common sense and good political judgment are afraid to espouse even a moderate position that advocates the limited use of filters.� there is a great fear within librarianship of being branded a censor.� no librarian wants to be wounded by that bullet.� that's why we can never really initiate an open and honest dialogue among ourselves on issues involving even the most obvious need for limitations of intellectual freedom.� as a result, the extremists always dominate, and we end up with an "anything goes" official policy that distances the library profession from mainstream america.

will manley is the author of the truth about reference librarians (mcfarland, 1996).� see also are we free to talk honestly about intellectual freedom?

ala record number: a109959185

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