Monday, December 28, 2009

TTYL by Lauren Myracle

A bestseller, Lauren Myracle's TTYL is a peek into the friendship between three 15-to-16-year-old girls in a typical 10th-grade milieu.  The book is written as a series of IMs. That is, it is made up of Instant Messaging "chats" via computer (the title refers to the chat room abbreviation for "Talk To You Later").  The reader is eavesdropping on private conversations between the three main characters.

TTYL is written to appeal rather narrowly to young women near the age of 16; readers any significant distance from that demographic will find the book rather light and fluffy.  The book is part of a series including TTFN ("Ta Ta For Now) and l8r g8r ("later, gator").  My review of TTYL will have to stand for the whole series, because I am NOT reading the others.

The book contains occasional strong language and some references to (but no outright descriptions of) sexual activity.  Some alcohol use occurs, but no smoking or drug use.  Actions have consequences, as when drinking leads to public embarrassment.  One character, through naivete, gets herself into a potentially sexual situation, but her friends intervene in a way to prevent anything from happening.

Frankly, the material some might find objectionable is quite light in TTYL compared to that found in many other books marketed to the around-10th-grade age-group. Few parents who have actually read the book will object to their 15-year-old reading it.

In spite of its age-appropriateness, TTYL is frequently challenged.  It appears on the American Library Association's list of Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2008 and Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2007, for rather unlikely reasons listed as "offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group".  A superintendent actually removed the book from a middle school library in the Round Rock (Texas) school district, in spite of a review committee's recommendation that the book be retained.

It is clear that most book challengers never read the books they challenge.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Two and a Half Million Dollars in Jeopardy Due to Possible Fraud?

SafeLibraries proclaims today: 

Two and a Half Million Dollars in Jeopardy Due to Possible Fraud 

at the Brooklyn Public Library. He believes that the library has taken government funds that make the library subject to the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), but is violating the terms of the act by allowing adult patrons to view pornography on library computers.  

If I may present my non-lawyer's opinion in opposition to his non-lawyer's opinion, SafeLibraries is here again showing that he doesn't understand what the CIPA law says, nor the related US v. ALA Supreme Court decision that upheld that act. The act does require that libraries accepting certain government funds implement internet filters on all library computers. But both the act and the decision require that adult patrons be able to deactivate those filters on demand. This is necessary to keep the filter requirement constitutional, since even highly accurate filters will sooner or later block an adult from accessing material he or she has a legal right to access. SafeLibraries seems either unable or unwilling to acknowledge this, even though he quotes part of the Supreme Court decision that explicitly requires the bypass option:

Concerns over filtering software's tendency to erroneously "overblock" access to constitutionally protected speech that falls outside the categories software users intend to block are dispelled by the ease with which patrons may have the filtering software disabled.
In his post, SafeLibraries acknowledges that the pornography in question is legal (neither of us has reviewed New York state laws on the matter).  He also acknowledges that the viewers are adults, not minors.  There is, then, no basis at all for his claim that the library has committed some kind of fraud, has violated the CIPA, or has violated any other kind of law.  There is no basis at all for his assertion that "the library needs to comply with the law or return the money."

I agree with SafeLibraries that the library could probably do more to limit the upset caused to some patrons when other patrons visibly access pornography on computers inside the library.  Privacy screens and policies restricting the use of library computers could both work in that direction.  These would be voluntary, however, and not required by law.  But SafeLibraries prefers legal restrictions to common-sense policies.

What is most disturbing about SafeLibraries' post is his unfounded claim that "legal pornography may be excluded legally."  It is true that in some states the law restricts the access of minors to some kinds of pornography that are legal for adults.  But that is not the question in this case, which is about adult access.  If the material in question is legal for adults, and is being accessed by adults, who, by law, have the right to bypass the CIPA-required filters, what is the legal issue here?  I invite SafeLibraries to post a comment explaining that here.

This is a clear example of why censors cannot be trusted.  The CIPA was designed to protect children from pornographic materials, and while the practicality of that law is dubious, it's goals are laudable.  But SafeLibraries, and others, want to take this law places it was never intended to go.  They want to use a law designed to protect children to restrict the legal activities of adults.  They want to use a law designed to protect children to restrict the Free Speech of adults.  You can never give them an inch, for they will surely take a mile.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

More on the Robert B. Downs Intelletcual Freedom Award

An article appearing today in the School Library Journal continues earlier coverage of the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award granted to the West Bend Community Memorial Library for resisting  this year's censorship attempts.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Non Sequitur on Censorship

The Non Sequitur Cartoon of 15 Dec 2009 is worth printing out and tacking on the refrigerator door. It's a scream.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Perks of Being a Wallflower

I avoided reviewing The Perks of Being a Wallflower for quite some time.  Based on the descriptions circulated on the internet by the would-be censors, this book is supposed to be unspeakably filthy, and I just didn't want to deal with it.  They claim it contains foul language, sex, molestation, drug use, rape, violence, bestiality, suicide, homosexuality, etc. etc.

And it's all true.  Well...... sort of.

Stephen Chbosky's book is a gritty and real-world look at the lives of 15-to-17-year-olds.  The book is a series of intimate letters written by a young man who is struggling to understand both himself and the society around him.  In addition to the usual awkwardness of the teenage years, Charlie has some specific emotional problems that make it harder for him to understand himself and others.  Identifying and resolving some of those issues is a central theme of the book.

While many parents are in frank denial about this, the teenage world in the book is quite real.  It involves school, cliques, dating, preparing for college, and the like.  It also includes parties, sex, drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.  The teenage characters live in a world of choices that is at times overwhelming, and they don't always make the right decisions.  While the book leads the reader to understand, even to sympathize, nothing in the book glorifies those mistakes: actions have their consequences.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is no more lurid or raw than scores of other books aimed at the 15-and-over age group.  It's treatment by censors would make it seem that this book is unusually or especially objectionable, but that is simply not the case. This is one more in a long list of examples in which one parent describes what he or she found objectionable, and then ignores any and all literary value, reducing the book to just the objectionable details.  Taken out of context, the objectionable details become a lopsided and misleading description of the book, and that lopsided description then gets repeated endlessly and uncritically by people who don't read.

I have to caution Free Speech advocates not to jump to the conclusion that all the claims of the censors are at best exaggerations, and more often simple lies.  Sooner or later, if only by accident, something a censor claims to be obscene or harmful to minors will turn out actually to be so. I just haven't found one yet.  We have to read to verify their claims because that is the one thing they are the least likely to do themselves.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

West Bend Library Wins Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award

Congratulations to the West Bend Community Memorial Library in Wisconsin!

The Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced on December 8th that the West library was the winner of the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award.  Their web page says, in part:
The faculty voted overwhelmingly to give this year's award to the West Bend Library for its steadfast advocacy on behalf of intellectual freedom in the face of a library challenge that garnered national attention. The efforts of the library board, Library Director Michael Tyree, the library staff, and many supportive community members are to be commended.
"The West Bend librarians, library board, and library supporters demonstrated the strong and steadfast advocacy on behalf of intellectual freedom that is the focus of the Downs Award. Despite the enormous media attention that the controversy received, they were unwavering in their support of the public library's responsibility to provide a diverse collection to serve *all* community members," said Christine Jenkins, GSLIS associate professor and director of the Center for Children's Books.
 See the announcement at the GSLIS web page, and other information at:

Bless Me Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima is a magnificently written coming-of-age story.  Although this is a novel, author Rudolfo Anaya draws heavily on his real-life experiences growing up in a Spanish-speaking community in New Mexico in the 1940s.  He paints a colorful and textured picture of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-religious environment, exploring the tensions that arise from the successes and failures of blending disparate cultural elements.

Young Antonio, the main character, struggles to find harmony among the conflicting aspects of his own nature.  His father's family are cowboys, a loud and boisterous people accustomed to living on the high plains, wanderers of open vastness, riding horses before they can walk. His mother's family are quiet, settled farmers of the valley, people attuned to the earth, who hope Antonio will grow up to be a Catholic priest. Contention over which of those paths he might take begins quite literally at his birth, and Antonio is both cursed and blessed with elements of both natures.

Ultima, who has a profound influence on Antonio's life, is a curandera, an herbalist, healer, and midwife.  Some revere her as a woman who has never sinned, while others fear she may be a sorceress or witch.   Antonio and Ultima share a deep bond, for it is in the nature of both to feel  the rhythms of the earth and the seasons, to sense the presence -- not quite a spirit -- of the river, and to dream prescient dreams.

I read this book slowly, savoring the prose. At times, I stopped to read a paragraph over again, sometimes even out loud, just for the joy of the language.  I think most readers will find this book worthwhile, but I have to acknowledge my own special interest in it.  I am an anthropologist by inclination as well as training, and so am impressed by Anaya's gift for translating cultures, and not just words.

I plan on incorporating this book into some of the anthropology courses I teach, because I think it can be a valuable learning experience.  I am certainly not alone in making that evaluation, since the book is widely used in high school and college classes.

It would be criminal to deny this book to any reader old enough to comprehend its language.

Yet Bless Me, Ultima occupies position number 78 on the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged books of the 1990s, and made it to position number five on the list for 2008, for reasons of "occult/satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, and violence."  While charges that the book is sexually explicit are fabricated out of nothing, the other complaints have some factual basis.  There is violence in the book, essential to its life-and-death theme, and none of it gratuitous.  Strong language is used, most of it in Spanish, and all of it a realistic portrayal of the way people speak. Occult themes are also central to the book, which is not always kind to the Christian religion, although no claim for one religion over another is actually made.

An LA Times article of Feb. 4th, 2009, describes one recent challenge. The book was left in the school library but was taken off a 10th-grade reading list at Orestimba high school in rural California.  This was instigated by a parent who "initially complained about the vulgar language, the sexually explicit scenes and an anti-Catholic bias," and later added that the book's themes "undermine the conservative family values in our homes."   While the school board claimed their ban was motivated by excessive profanity, one cannot help but suspect that school board unlawfully removed the book because of objections to the ideas it contains.

More info on Bless Me, Ultima can be found on Wikipedia, Cliff Notes, and Spark Notes.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What Does Obsession Look Like?

Obsession:  "Compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea or unwanted feeling or emotion, often with symptoms of anxiety.  A compulsive, often unreasonable, idea or emotion causing such preoccupation." [American Heritage Dictionary]

If you want to see what obsession looks like, check out the double-whammy on SafeLibries' blog today, GLSEN Gets It, the ALA Doesn't and Phyllis Schlafly Exposes ALA Fraud.  Both show the lack of sound judgment and unwillingness to face simple facts that come from unhealthy obsessions.

Both posts do the one thing that is most important to SafeLibraries, far more important than protecting children from pornographic books, which is to heap blame on the American Library Association.  I don't object to laying blame where it belongs, but I do object to heaping blame on the uninvolved, as SafeLibraries does in these posts.

In his first post, he blames the ALA for the fact that two books written for quite different age groups happen to be next to each other on a grocery store shelf.  The two books in question, "Bob the Builder" and "Looking for Alaska"  would not be placed together in most libraries. Arguably, they shouldn't have been together in the grocery store either, but what has that to do in the slightest with the ALA?   It is impossible to imagine that the ALA has the any influence or even awareness, let alone control, over how books are arranged on a grocery store shelf, yet SafeLibraries would have us believe that this juxtaposition is somehow the ALA's fault.  Somehow, in his mind, the ALA had a responsibility to warn the grocery store management of the difference in intended age group for the two books.  Not the authors, not the publishers, not the grocery store management who decided one way or another to acquire these two books, not the grocery store managers who decided how to arrange their inventory, but the uninvolved ALA.  This is a level of irrationality that comes only from unhealthy obsession.

If that weren't a sufficient example of obsession, Safelibraries goes on to repeat an especially thoughtless post by Phyllis Schlafly from her Eagle Forum.  Somewhat behind schedule, or perhaps lacking something more constructive and timely to say, Schlafly claims (again) that Banned Books Week is a Hoax perpetrated by the ALA.  In addition to inappropriate spin, her post contains two patent falsehoods.  First she says that "only government can engage in censorship" This arbitrary and self-serving redefinition of the term is ridiculous, as if a semi-literate mob breaking down the library doors to pull out all the books they object to wouldn't be censorship, just because it wasn't being done by government.  Secondly, she writes: "These people accused of being 'book banners' are just ordinary parents who want to limit their own children’s exposure to material they consider harmful or obscene."  That's not spin-doctoring, it's a simple lie.  Parents who really are trying to limit their own children's exposure are not labelled "book banners." But they are so labelled when they go beyond their own family, trying to rob other parents of the right make different choices.  Even that wouldn't be so bad, if it were true that they were worried only about harmful or obscene material.  The sad and well-documented fact is that many parents go far beyond that concern, demanding the removal of books for social, religious, and political reasons that have nothing to do with obscenity or harmfulness, going far beyond any kind of censorship the law will allow.

Rightly or wrongly, we might choose to overlook Ms. Schlafly's factual flub in this area.  After all, she's not a specialist in Free Speech regulation or library practices.  Those who make a study of this area cannot be so excused.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Wrinkle In Time

A Wrinkle In Time is a bit of fantasy, a bit of science fiction, written for older children and younger teens.  Adult readers will find it a bit light, although many have fond memories of reading the book when they were younger. A significant work of literature, it has it's own Wikipedia and Spark Notes entries, and has won the Newbery Medal, the Sequoyah Book Award, and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award.  In addition to these honors, author Madeleine L'Engle held a dozen honorary degrees and received awards such as the ALAN Award for outstanding contribution to adolescent literature, from the National Council of Teachers of English.

I read this book looking for objectionable material, and I found absolutely none.  The usual things that provoke censorious ire, such as descriptions of sexual activity, adult situations, strong language, glorification of crime, etc., are completely absent.

Yet the book is challenged. It occupies position number 23 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most challenged books of the 1990s.  Challenges are described in Foerstel's book Banned in the U.S.A.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries and in McClellan's Madeleine L'Engle: Banned, Challenged and Censored.

Objections to the work are primarily religious, at least some of them the result of judging the book on the basis of excerpts rather than reading the entire work.  A Wrinkle in Time is frankly religious, asserting the existence of God and a clear demarcation between good and evil. More subtly, the book is also distinctly Judeo-Christian, naming Jesus and quoting scripture (without the usual citation of chapter and verse).  Some objections arise because thee of the characters appear to be witches, although reading the whole book reveals that those are merely transient appearances of beings that are later identified as guardian angels.  There are no examples of magic or spells, but it is a question of interpretation as to whether some characters are using technological devices or supernatural powers, such as using a crystal ball to show several people what is going on in other parts of the galaxy.

Those who object in spite of having read the entire book are usually fundamentalist or otherwise doctrinaire Christians who object to the liberal Christian, even pantheistic, style of the book (and of the author).  For example, some feel that the book demotes Jesus from a unique incarnation of divinity to just one of many teachers.  In Trojan Horse: How the New Age Movement Infiltrates the Church, authors Scott and Smith claim that L'Engle's influence is penetrating mainstream Christianity in spite of her denial of basic religious tenets.  In Battle to Destroy Truth, Claris van Kuiken called L'Engle's books "repulsive, dangerous, subversive, and treacherous," a characterization that most readers of the book would find incomprehensible. (I'm quoting and paraphrasing these sources from McClellan's book, mentioned above.)

Some parents have chosen to opt their children out of classroom assignments that require reading this book.  Disturbingly, that has not been enough for some, who have also called for removing the book altogether from curricula or even library shelves. There is, of course, no legal basis at all for censoring a book over differences in religious perspective.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Richard Wright's Black Boy

Black Boy, by Richard Wright, is an important and frequently challenged book.  An author of note, Wright is himself the subject of several biographies and works of literary criticism.  Black Boy, and some of Wright's other books, are used as teaching tools in middle schools, high schools, and colleges.  The book is the subject of volumes of Cliff Notes and Spark Notes, and has it's own Wikipedia entry.

Often the center of controversy, the book is semi-autobiographical, describing the author's own experiences growing up poor and black in Mississippi in the 1920s.  The author shines a light on some of the darker recesses of recent American history, painting a gloomy picture of race relations and economic opportunity (or its lack) that is unflattering to all.

Censors try too often to claim that the books they object to are all worthless trash, and this certainly one of the works that resoundingly falsifies that claim. Once again, I must thank the censors for calling attention to a fine piece of literature.  I found this a fascinating and rewarding read, a deep and uncommonly honest look into a part of American culture many would prefer to forget, written by someone unusually gifted both as a social observer and an expressive writer.  Wright is an iconoclast, a burster of mythological bubbles, the one person in the room willing to say out loud that the emperor has no clothes.

Objections are sometimes raised, claiming that the book is too sexually explicit and contains foul language.  Having just read it, I can say that those constitute a very small part of the book, which contains nothing too serious or explicit for any teenage reader.

More honest objections to Black Boy have been political and social.  The author was at one point a member of the Communist party.  While he later repudiated the party, this fact was enough to provoke calls for the suppression of his writings.  The book portrays human beings as brutal, selfish, and exploitative.  It's portrayal of southern society of the 1920s is decidedly unflattering. It also violates major American cultural taboos in at least two ways.  First, it dares to suggest that lack of economic opportunity profoundly alters human character and behavior, challenging the Horatio Alger mythology of the downtrodden pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.  Second, it dares to suggest that religion can be part of the system of worldly power.

Speaking of censorship, I point out the 1945 remarks of Mr. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, sometimes Governor and sometimes US Senator, who condemned the book in no uncertain terms.  Bilbo was, according to Wikipedia, a segregationist, a white supremacist, member of the Ku Klux Klan, and author of a book titled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.  He made these remarks in the US Senate, so they are included in the congressional record (June 27th, 1945, 79th Congress, 1st Session, Congressional Record Volume 91, page 6808):
There is another book which should be taken off the book racks of the nation; it should be removed from the book stores; its sales should be stopped.  It is the recent book of the month, which has had such great sale. . . . It is entitled "Black Boy,"  by Richard Wright. . . . He wrote the book Black Boy ostensibly as the story of his life.  Actually it is a damnable lie from beginning to end.  It is practically all fiction.  There is just enough truth to it to enable him to build his fabulous lies about his experiences in the South and his description of the people of the South and the culture, education, and life of the southern people.  The purpose of the book is to plant the seeds of hate in every Negro in America against the white men of the South or against the white race anywhere, for that matter.  That is the purpose.  Its purpose is to plant the seeds of devilment and trouble-breeding in the days to come in the mind and heart of every American Negro.  Read the book if you do not believe what I am telling you.  It is the dirtiest, filthiest, lousiest, most obscene piece of writing that I have ever seen in print.  I would hate to have a son or daughter of mine be permitted to read it; it is so filthy and so dirty.  But it comes from a Negro, and you cannot expect any better from a person of his type.

While the Senator provided some of the most vitriolic rhetoric against the book, he was not alone in challenging it.  Black Boy has it's own entry in Karolides' Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds, where just some of the censorship attempts against it are described.  The book was banned in Mississippi for a time.   Infamously, in the 1970s, the book was included among those that the Island Trees School Board tried to remove from their school library.  The Board characterized Black Boy, Vonnegut's Slaughter House Five, Morris' The Naked Ape, and other books as "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy," and they stole into the library at night and removed them.  This resulted in the Board v. Pico decision, in which the US Supreme court clarified that school boards cannot remove a book merely because they disagree with its message.  Attempts at censorship still crop up, mostly over the use of the book in classroom curricula.

I found the following two quotations especially striking.   More than the few and slight descriptions of sexual activity or the occasional use of strong language, these are the issues that motivate objections and challenges.  Each of these quotes addresses quite different issues, and each speaks volumes in a single paragraph:
I began to marvel at how smoothly the black boys acted out the roles that the white race had mapped out for them.  Most of them were not conscious of living a special, separate, stunted way of life.  Yet I knew that in some period of their growing up -- a period that they had no doubt forgotten -- there had been developed in them a delicate; sensitive controlling mechanism that shut off their minds and emotions from all that the white race had said was taboo.  Although they lived in an America where in theory there existed equality of opportunity, they knew unerringly what to aspire to and what not to aspire to.  Had a black boy announced that he aspired to be a writer, he would have been unhesitatingly called crazy by his pals.  Or had a black boy spoken of yearning to get a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, his friends -- in the boy's own interest -- would have reported his odd ambition to the white boss. [p. 172]

There were more violent quarrels in our deeply religious home than in the home of a gangster, a burglar, or a prostitute, a fact which I used to hint gently to Granny and which did my cause no good.  Granny bore the standard for God, but she was always fighting.  The peace that passes understanding never dwelt with us.  I, too, fought; but I fought because I felt I had to keep from being crushed, to fend off continuous attack.  But Granny and Aunt Addie quarreled and fought not only with me, but with each other over minor points of religious doctrine, or over some imagined infraction of what they chose to call their moral code.  Wherever I found religion in my life I found strife, the attempt of one individual or group to rule another in the name of God.  The naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn. [p. 119]

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel about the near future of the United States, or at least part of it, after ecological degradation and political turmoil lead to a theocratic revolution.  Reduced fertility combined with religious bigotry create a rigid, ideologically controlled, sexually repressed society in which women are virtual slaves.  For women, in particular, reading and learning are forbidden.  It won the Nebula Award and Booker Prize in 1986 and the Prometheus Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987.  Often a part of school curricula, the book has it's own Wikipedia entry, and it's own volumes among Cliff Notes and Spark Notes,

Canadian Author Margaret Atwood has won these and other awards, and holds honorary degrees from at least a dozen universities.

The Handmaid's Tale also ranked 37th on the American Library Associations list of most challenged books for 1990 to 1999, and is listed in Sova's book Literature Suppressed on Sexual Grounds.  Challengers sometimes object to sex scenes, brutality toward women, or a bleak view of the future. Anyone who reads the book will realize that these claims are exaggerated to hide what is really bothering most challengers, which is that the book portrays fundamentalist religion (of any kind) as a hurtful and destructive force.

While responding to censorship attempts, I am often reminded of The Handmaid's Tale, as censorship plays a prominent roll in the story.  It is a prophecy of what life could be like if the censors win, if those who fear books and ideas come to power, if those who don't read get to tell those who do read what they can and cannot read.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Those Pesky Library Exceptions in State Law

Pro-censors have a strong tendency to make overblown claims that one or another book is obscene or pornographic.  By using such terms they are trying to claim that the contents of the challenged book are either 1) legally obscene for everybody, and so the book is not protected by the First Amendment, or 2) are obscene with regard to a minor, and so a minor's access to the book can legally be limited, even if an adult's access cannot be limited.

Most of the challenged books I've reviewed on this blog fall into neither of these categories.  That is, they are neither obscene for everyone nor obscene for a minor.  While parents may find some of those books objectionable for any of a long list of reasons, they're mostly kidding themselves if they think the library is breaking the law by letting their kids read them. 

There are some exceptions, though.  The graphic novel Block Dossier, for example, might meet the definition of "obscene for minors" in some states.  This is the book that resulted in the firing of two desk attendants who deleted an 11-year-old's hold on the book, in Jessamine County, Kentucky.  While the book is protected speech for adults, it might be legal, in some states, to impose restrictions on a child's access to it.

I say in some states because the laws defining and regulating materials that are "harmful to minors" exist mostly at the state level, and no two states are exactly alike in this regard.  While all the state laws I looked at contain some variation of the three-pronged Miller test for defining obscenity, each state uses slightly different language, casts a broader or narrower net, imposes different penalties, and permits different exemptions or exceptions.

It is the exemptions that often cause a problem for the would-be censors.  In some states -- certainly not all -- the law that regulates materials that are obscene for minors has a specific exemption for libraries.  State legislatures sometimes enact such exemptions for a variety of reasons, including a desire to keep the statute enforceable.  That is, they don't want the law to wind up overturned by a court because it ran afoul of the strict protections of Free Speech that apply in libraries.

Not being a lawyer, I find it fairly difficult to rummage through state obscenity laws to see whether they've got library exceptions.  I was pleasantly surprised when I found, entirely by accident, that Wisconsin state law was unusually clear on this point.  Since it's unusually clear, I'll use it as an example.

Chapter 948 of Wisconsin state law defines what is obscene for minors, and imposes penalties for providing such materials to a minor.  It also specifically exempts school and library staff from prosecution, and gives some reasons for doing so.  Below is a portion of that law, which happens to be clear enough even for non-lawyers to get at least a partial understanding:
W.S.A. 948.1 Exposing a child to harmful material or harmful descriptions or narrations
. . . .

(4) Libraries and educational institutions. (a) The legislature finds that the libraries and educational institutions under par. (b) carry out the essential purpose of making available to all citizens a current, balanced collection of books, reference materials, periodicals, sound recordings and audiovisual materials that reflect the cultural diversity and pluralistic nature of American society. The legislature further finds that it is in the interest of the state to protect the financial resources of libraries and educational institutions from being expended in litigation and to permit these resources to be used to the greatest extent possible for fulfilling the essential purpose of libraries and educational institutions.

(b) No person who is an employee, a member of the board of directors or a trustee of any of the following is liable to prosecution for violation of this section for acts or omissions while in his or her capacity as an employee, a member of the board of directors or a trustee:

1. A public elementary or secondary school.

2. A private school, as defined in s. 115.001(3r).

3. Any school offering vocational, technical or adult education that:

a. Is a technical college, is a school approved by the educational approval board under s. 38.50, or is a school described in s. 38.50(1)(e) 6., 7. or 8.; and

b. Is exempt from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of the internal revenue code, as defined in s. 71.01(6).

4. Any institution of higher education that is accredited, as described in s. 39.30(1)(d), and is exempt from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of the internal revenue code, as defined in s. 71.01(6).

5. A library that receives funding from any unit of government.

You can look up Chapter 948 or any other Wisconsin State Law at:
The library exemption is at 948.11(4).

Friday, November 27, 2009

SafeLibraries Shows Us Again Why His Information Cannot Be Trusted

In today's post, SafeLibraries chides a Vermont library for the role he claims it played in enabling a convicted sex offender to violate the terms of his probation.  SafeLibraries cites a somewhat vague news article from the Brattleboro Reformer, which describes how the parolee used a library computer to chat with individuals by means of Yahoo Messenger, and how at least one of his chat partners supplied him with some kind of pornography.  The parolee was arrested for violating the terms of his probation.  It is not clear whether or not a crime was committed (other crimes described in the article took place in the past, and the degree to which they had anything -- or nothing -- to do with any library anywhere is not described).

Somehow, SafeLibraries blames the library and the American Library Association, at least in part.  He alleges that "the anything-goes policy of the ALA," created a situation in which the "library is partially at fault for refusing to take action that may have prevented his behavior in the first place."  

But what policy, what filters, what library action would have prevented the parolee's misuse of the computer?  The news article nowhere states that the man visited any pornographic website that would have been blocked by filters. It doesn't indicate that he visited any pornography sites at all.  The article states only that he was engaged in private online chats with like-minded individuals, apparently adults.  Even libraries that implement internet filters usually permit this type of real-time communication. Few internet filters, if any, would trap sending a pornographic image by this means, any more than such programs could determine whether or not a photograph attached to an email message were pornographic (remember that filters work mostly by identifying words and text patterns, and rarely by any analysis of what a photographic image is about).

The fact is that the library's internet use policy looks pretty good.  It expressly prohibits using library computers to view "pornography," a much broader class of material than the more legalistic "obscenity." The library could implement filters, but it doesn't appear that any such filter would have prevented the kind of communication that this parolee engaged in.  Violation of library policy results in the the revocation of a patron's internet privileges, or even general library privileges.  What else does SafeLibraries expect the library to do?  Anything beyond this is the purview of the police department and district attorney's office, not the library.

More than anything else, it is this inability to maintain a balanced perspective that makes SafeLibraries' spin on things so untrustworthy.  He is obsessed with assassinating the character of the American Library Association, and cannot resist spinning a situation that has nothing to do with the ALA, and hardly has anything to do with any library at all, into a deliberately anti-social act by that institution.

One sentence in SafeLibraries' post reveals not only a deep misunderstanding of how the legal system works, but also a large does of paranoia.  Since the sentence speaks volumes, I'll let it speak for itself.
I suggest the parole board consider the library to be under the control of a foreign entity, the ALA, and that control made it an "attractive nuisance" that the perp could not resist and that endangers children.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Global Warmism (sic) and Banned Books Week?

SafeLibraries is quite right, in his Tuesday post, to point out the similarities between Global Warming and Banned Books Week: denying either requires an impressive ability to ignore empirical evidence.


I haven’t paid much attention of late to Ginny Maziarka’s Wissup Blog, since she clearly has changed her focus to non-library issues.  But I see she’s still getting in her digs at the West Bend library with a diatribe in the sidebar of her blog. I don’t know how long it’s been there, but iIt shows she’s learned absolutely nothing from her failed censorship efforts. 

The numbered items in bold are from the Wissup blog.  My response is under each item.
1. All materials should be available for all ages (anything goes). Really!

Anything?  I guess it is anything, if you ignore the fact that the library already keeps obscene materials off the shelves entirely, separates materials written for children from materials written for adults, and encourages parents to supervise what their children are reading.

2. National control cannot (and should not) be resisted; therefore, the disturbing value system of the ALA, OIF,WLA trumps local control of the library by the citizens and taxpayers it serves.

“National control,” of course, exists only in the imagination of the paranoid.  The organizations listed are only advisory, and each library makes independent decisions.  Citizens and taxpayers have exactly the same level of control over the local library that they have over any other agency of local government, and by exactly the same means.

3. Young adults are children ages 11 through 17. (Be sure to address your 11 year old in a manner appropos.)

This says nothing substantive.

4. Assisting parents in identifying sexually explicit materials within your library is not important to them.

The question is not whether it’s important, but whether it’s even remotely feasible.  For every five parents there are at least four different opinions about what any given child should or should not be allowed to see, and censors like Maziarka steadfastly refuse to provide tangible criteria to guide such grading of materials.  Why is that the library’s fault or responsibility?  Allowing parents to make their own choices for their own children is the only practical approach.

5. You must stay with your children and read each book he/she checks out to assure they are not entering into the YA Zone, that is, the "Yes to All Zone."

Parenting is work, especially if you’re the type who tries to limit the ideas and information children might find in books.  Calling the YA zone a “Yes to All” zone is a statement of personal values that any parent is entitled to make, but is irrelevant to public policy.

6. ..that if other people's young children (even younger than 11....) are openly reading books of a sexually explicit, graphic nature, say nothing...and by all means, don't stop them from checking them out. You, too, can have an 8-year-old snag "The Joy of Sex" off the shelf right here in your very own library!

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, you should parent only your own children.  When it comes to other people’s children, you should mind your own damn business.

7. ..that porn filters are not required, therefore, none are needed. True loyalty to the many children they serve. After all, we would not want to restrict freedom of speech to those young'uns!

The real stumbling block to the implementation of internet filters on computers used by children is the overreaching of the censors, who invariably try to take advantage of the situation in order to interfere with the Free Speech rights of both minors and adults.  If they would get just a little more practical, let adults be adults, and recognize that even minors have constitutionally protected rights to receive information, something could be worked out to limit children’s internet access to pornography. 

8. ...that organizations such as SafeLibraries, PFOX, PABBIS, and Family Friendly Libraries, that work to protect children from being sexually victimized are not welcome in our community.

Everyone welcomes organizations that actually work to protect children from being sexually victimized, when that goal is not merely empty rhetoric, and when it seems that the organization can actually achieve that goal.  None of the organizations mentioned here fits that description.  The primary goal of all these organizations is censorship first, with children’s safety at best a distant second.  None acknowledge the constitutional limits within which they must operate, therefore none of them can achieve any real-world goals.  And if they cannot achieve any real-world goals, they cannot protect children from anything.  All of these organizations should be resisted, if for no other reason than that they clog the communication channels with disinformation and hinder any real progress on either side of the debate.

9. That the excerpts listed below (WARNING: NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN) are perfectly acceptable for the eyes of children.

As a parent, you should decide what is acceptable to you and therefore to your children.  But you have no right to assume that the whole planet agrees with you.  And by the way, obscenity law requires that books be evaluated “as a whole,” not on the basis of isolated excerpts.

This is a propagan[d]a battle to ensure children retain access to inappropriate mate[r]ial despite the law, common sense and community standards.

Despite what law, exactly?  If your library really is violating some law, then call the police.  If not, then stop making baseless claims. Talk about propaganda: the censors know they’re lying about the “despite the law” part. 

Monday, November 23, 2009

Private Options and the Sincerity of the Censors

One of the larger errors in the thinking of censorship proponents is their failure to distinguish between their private values and public policy.  Any individual is perfectly entitled to define whatever they disapprove of as objectionable, and to take steps to keep such materials out of their personal lives.  They get to choose what books they buy, which movies they go see, what music albums their children can keep at home, and the like.

When it comes to their private choices, we have to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they're sincere in their beliefs.  But as soon as they try to impose private beliefs on society in general, that sincerity is can, and should, be questioned.  Once they've explored the public options and are told quite clearly that public policy can't or won't accommodate their goals, why do they persist?  The fact is that there are private options that can accomplish what they want to accomplish, at least with regard to their own children.  If they're really concerned with their children's wellbeing, and it's clear that they can't force the public library to do what they want, should they not then pursue those private options?

Persisting in attempts to subordinate public policy to their private beliefs shows that their aim is politics, and not protecting children.  It is a measure of their sincerity, or lack of it, that they continue to try to subordinate the public library to their private  values.

For those parents who want strict control over the values and information to which their children might be exposed in a public library, there are a number of private options:

  • Open a private library.  These used to be more common in the US, but have become quite rare, in part because they are very expensive to run.  But if a library is private -- serving only customers who have paid a membership fee -- the library can do whatever it wants.  They can select, remove, re-shelve, label, restrict access to, and filter whatever they want, however they want.  No need for any government intervention or court oversight.  No grounds for claims of banning or censorship.
  • Run a private library by mail.  It would still have to be a private membership operation to keep it legal, but would be a lot cheaper than a building patrons could visit (and there are specialized libraries already running like this).  They can put their catalog online and registered customers can check out and return books by mail.  Same freedom from those pesky Free Speech laws as above.
  • Operate a private library entirely on-line.  Increasingly, books, music, and video are all available electronically.  Many brick-and-mortar libraries already have many selections they can make available to patrons online.  The technology is well in place to support this, although some legal details are lagging a bit behind.  In spite of this temporary stumbling block, the age of the all-online library has arrived.
  • Create an online ratings service.  This has been done, but so far only in a fragmented and scattered sort of way. It could get a lot more formal without a lot of expenditure.  A ratings service could be an online catalog of materials vetted by various groups or organizations.  Contents could be described, and one or more ratings could be displayed for each title. Customer comments could be appended and edited.  Any parent could then check any book of interest against this rating service and make a decision in advance of visiting the public library. Paradoxically, such ratings would be available via internet from computers inside the public library -- they just wouldn't be integrated into the public library's catalog.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

It's not Censorship, It's parenting! (Or is it?)

In a November 18th post on, writer Erin Manning presents us with a dazzling display of ideology shutting down all logic.  The opinions she expresses are dear to SafeLibraries' heart, as he repeats her entire article on his blog.

Ms. Manning engages in a huge error of binary thinking, assuming that parenting cannot be censorship, even if one is trying to "parent" somebody else's children, and the "parenting" includes deciding what somebody else's child can read.  She clearly does not understand the definition either of parenting or of censorship.

Manning claims that since most challenges come from parents, these challenges are somehow beyond any wrongdoing.  She seems unaware that even if their motivations are pure, parents don't agree even with each other about what a given child should or should not read, let alone with a school board or library board.  She seems to think that parents who challenge books are making informed judgments, ignoring the history of book challenges, which shows that few challengers ever read the books they challenge.

She crosses the line from spin to either ignorance or  outright deception when she writes:
To put it bluntly, the ALA puts itself in the position of defending lousy, substandard, second-rate writing that would probably not even be published in the first place, were it not for the insatiable appetite for inappropriate content usually euphemised as "dark"or "edgy" by the sort of pre-teen who thinks angsty, brooding, sparkly vampires are a good idea.
Even a quick scan of the ALA sources she's obviously checked reveals the extreme falseness of this statement: many a challenged book is an award winner, some even of Pulitzers and Nobels.

And the list of what she thinks is bannable! Not just obscenity or pornography, but a list of objectionables that would pretty much empty library shelves of all but the most mind-numbing pablum: sex, drinking, drugs, profanity, "chat speak," prostitution, witchcraft, voodoo, devil worship, violence, implied sex, anti-religious and anti-Christian messages, homosexuality, suicide, nudity, eating disorders, and smoking (I assume she did not intend this as a complete list).

And after labeling almost any piece of worthwhile literature "inappropriate for children," she has the gall to claim that "removing books that are inappropriate for our kids is not the same as banning books."  The same self-contradicting statement is made by many censors across the U.S.: "we don't want to ban anything, we just want to remove . . . ."  Ms. Manning made a serious blunder years ago when she decided not to take that introductory course in logic and critical thinking.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

SafeLibraries is Right: A Public Libary can be a Dangerous Place

After a week of lambasting SafeLibraries, I want to point out that there is one critical point on which I agree with him completely: A public library can be a dangerous place.

Basic to much of the censorship rhetoric is an unspoken assumption that a library is, or ought to be, a nursery or day-care center.  No public library is either, nor can any public library ever be either.  Library staff have no legal right nor legal responsibility to supervise anybody's children.  A parent dropping their a child off at the library might has well have turned the child loose at a shopping mall.  Parents, please consider:
  • A library is a public place: anybody can walk in off the street.
  • Crimes are committed in libraries, as they are in many other places, both public and private.
  • Library staff have no in loco parentis rights or responsibilities: they are not supervising your children.
  • Most libraries have no police or private security guards on duty.
  • A library that does have police or private security on duty is likely to have experienced security problems in the recent past.
  • A public library is a place where children congregate.  This is known to potential kidnappers, molesters, and other exploiters.
  • Computers in your library might not have internet filters.
  • If your library has internet filters, those filters are not 100% reliable, and even if reliable, might not filter out everything you think should be filtered out.
  • Books and other materials in a library cover a wide range of views, and you might find some of these objectionable or inappropriate for your child. 
  • There are no controls within the library to prevent your child from accessing any library materials.  
As a parent, you have options in dealing with these issues.  Firstly, you never have let your child enter any public library.  Alternatively, you can accompany your child to the library and supervise your child's use of  library materials and services.  If you can't go with your child, you can make sure your child is accompanied by some other adult you have chosen to trust.  You can ensure that a younger child is accompanied by an older minor who is emotionally mature enough to act responsibly.  But if you think your child is not mature enough to go to a shopping mall alone, that child is probably not mature enough to go alone to the library.

And even if we censor and filter all that the censors want to censor and filter, most of the above would still be true.

Friday, November 20, 2009

SafeLibraries Abuses the Definitions Banned and Censored

At last, we get to the end of my list, number six of the six basic and basically incorrect tenets that SafeLibraries constantly builds on. I've dealt with this one elsewhere, so I'll keep it short.

Denial is a wonderful thing.  Censorship proponents often say utterly irrational things like, "we don't want to ban anything, we just want this book removed from the library."  Or they'll say, "we don't want to censor anything, we just want this book re-shelved from the children's section to the adult section." Safelibraries and a number of conservative columnists love to say that the Banned Book Week is a hoax, claiming that no books have been banned in the US in decades.  And, ever so conveniently, they all get to paint themselves as something other than what they are. "We're not censors," they claim, "we just . . . ."

While words like censorship and banning certainly do apply to large-scale prohibitions, they also apply to very small-scale infringements on Free Speech. The general understanding of the term has never been restricted only to large-scale prohibitions, and any attempt to restrict its use that way is artificial and self-serving.

Regardless of the common understanding of the terms, courts have made it abundantly clear that they can can and do apply to very small-scale infringements on Free Speech.  In their formal decisions they've called the removal, even the re-shelving, of a single volume in single library, censorship and banning. They've also made it clear that the terms apply even when a book is abundantly available outside of a library, in bookstores or other locations (availability in one location does not change the fact that restricting access in another location is, in fact, censorship and banning).

So the kinds of restrictions commonly proposed in library book challenges are censorship. And that means that many books that have been removed from libraries, re-shelved within libraries, or had access restrictions put on them, have, in fact, been banned. That's not my opinion. That's court precedent.  Banned Books Week, then, is far from a hoax.  Books are banned and censored every year.

And if those kinds of restrictions are, by court usage, censorship and banning, than the proponents of those restrictions are censors and banners: censors by intent if they work to achieve such ends, and censors in fact if they do achieve them.

For examples of how courts have used the terms banned and censored, see Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea, US District Court, MA (1978), 454 F. Supp. 703, and Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, Texas, US District Court, N.D. Texas (2000), 121 F.Supp. 2nd 530.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

SafeLibraries' Abuse of the US v. ALA Decision

The one court case SafeLibraries cites more than any other is the 2003 US v. ALA decision by the US Supreme Court.  This is an important censorship case, but nowhere near as important as SafeLibraries thinks.  I've dealt with this case more than enough on this blog, so I'll try to keep this brief.

The US v. ALA decision tested the constitutionality of the Child Internet Protection Act, or CIPA. The CIPA is basically a set of strings attached to the acceptance of certain federal funds.  The strings are that the federal government requires schools and libraries that take take those funds to implement internet filters on all computers, according to certain rules.

The ACLU and American Library Association fought this requirement as an infringement on Free Speech, but ultimately the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the federal government and the CIPA. Some of the key factors in the court's logic were: 1) the broad power of the federal government to impose conditions on the money it hands out, 2) a compelling state interest in protecting children from inappropriate materials, 3) that filters won't overblock too terribly minors' access to legitimate websites, and 4) the fact that the CIPA requires filters to be turned off if an adult user so requests. It is important to note that the court's reasoning is built on established precedents, which require restrictions to be narrowly tailored to the compelling state interest, and that the least restrictive available approach be taken.

If there is something new in this case, it is that there is some definition or clarity given here to the idea of restricting children's access to some materials that are less than obscene for adults, but are too sexually explicit for children.  The basic idea is something that the Supreme Court has indicated elsewhere it is willing to allow, within certain limits.  In this case we have a specific piece of legislation that implements such restrictions, and has been held by the court to be constitutional.

This did not fully settle the matter, however.  The court specifically left open the possibility of "as applied challenges," meaning that the constitutionality of the CIPA was theoretically sound, but the details of actually implementing that theory are still subject to court review.  Libraries, cities, and counties can still be sued if they block access to legitimate websites and fail to correct the problem.  Such a suit could result from overblocking the legitimate access of either an adult or a child.

As I indicated in my post on Monday, SafeLibraries seems to mistake the meaning of this case, as if the Supreme Court were somehow imposing these restrictions on the entire country. That is, he doesn't understand the difference between a court decision that allows certain kinds of legislation to be applied, as apposed to a court decision that requires some specific action.   I infer this from his description of the American Library Association as "defying the Supreme Court,"  or encouraging others to do so.  There is, of course, nothing here to defy.  If states or other entities want to try to implement restrictions on children's access to materials that are not obscene for adults, but are too explicit for children, they are free to try to work out legislation that will pass the kind of constitutional test that the CIPA underwent.  One thing you can be certain of is that there will be a suit and the law will be tested.

Absent such legislation, SafeLibraries has no leg to stand on.  The US v. ALA decision is not a law unto itself, but is the validation of one specific law, the CIPA.  The CIPA, in turn, is quite narrow, applying only to internet access and only to libraries that take specific federal funds.  It imposes no controls at all on libraries that don't take those funds, and it imposes no controls at all on books or other materials on any library shelves.

As I write this, it occurs to me that there might be a side-effect that arises from failing to understand the difference between allowing and requiring certain kinds of laws.  SafeLibraries might have jumped to the conclusion that the US v. ALA decision allows some kind of executive action without supporting legislation.  That is, for examples, that a library board could decide to restrict children's access to certain books without a state law in place to describe exactly what kinds of materials could be so restricted, by whom, and by what procedures.  This is a serious misreading of the decision, and could explain some of the otherwise inexplicable positions SafeLibraries takes. 

Again, if SafeLibraries wants to accomplish what he claims he wants to accomplish, he needs to shift his focus away from blaming the American Library Association for foiling his plans, and on to working toward the development of legislation that will work within the constitutional limits courts have already described.  Mostly, this will have to be done at the state level, and may not be feasible at all in states with Free Speech protections in their own constitutions that are more expansive than those in the US Constitution.  Continued misrepresentation of narrow court decisions as broad legislation, or as authorization to take censorious actions not specifically authorized by law, will accomplish exactly nothing.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How SafeLibraries is Wrong about "Community Standards"

I agree 100% with SafeLibraries when he says that “community standards” are an important part of the legal definition of obscenity.  The US Supreme Court has clearly done away with the possibility of a single, nation-wide definition.  The court has recognized that community standards can vary one from another, so material that is acceptable in one town might be prohibited in another.

The problem, as is too often the case in censorship battles, is overreach:  censorship proponents take the idea of “community standards” further than courts ever intended or will allow.  Yes, the standards used to decide what is or is not obscene can vary from community to community, but they cannot vary infinitely.  Courts have placed significant limits on the degree of latitude juries have in that decision.

The legal definition of obscenity was established in its current form in a 1973 US Supreme Court case known as Miller v. California.  In that case the court decided:
This much has been categorically settled by the Court, that obscene material is unprotected by the First Amendment. . . . We acknowledge, however, the inherent dangers of undertaking to regulate any form of expression. State statutes designed to regulate obscene materials must be carefully limited. As a result, we now confine the permissible scope of such regulation to works which depict or describe sexual conduct. That conduct must be specifically defined by the applicable state law, as written or authoritatively construed. A state offense must also be limited to works which, taken as a whole, appeal to the prurient interest in sex, which portray sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and which, taken as a whole, do not have serious literary , artistic, political, or scientific value.  [Internal citations omitted]
It is clear from this language that the legal definition of obscenity can be applied only to materials that are highly sexually explicit.  The court itself emphasized that point, just a little further into their decision, by writing:
Under the holdings announced today , no one will be subject to prosecution for the sale or exposure of obscene materials unless these materials depict or describe patently offensive "hard core" sexual conduct specifically defined by the regulating state law, as written or  construed.
Language in various parts of the Miller decision made it clear that community standards could be used by juries who were charged with determining whether an item was obscene.  But, the language of Miller also made it clear that materials must be “hard core” in order to meet the definition of obscenity, limiting the latitude juries had.

Those limits were tested almost immediately, in the 1974 case Jenkins v. Georgia.  That case tested the conviction, under Georgia state law, of a movie theater owner who showed the film Carnal Knowledge.  A local jury held that the film was obscene, and the Georgia Supreme court agreed.  The US Supreme court not only disagreed, but also overturned the conviction, holding that the lower courts erred in finding the movie obscene.  They chided the lower courts for allowing the local jury to stray too far from the “hard core” requirement previously established.  They wrote:
. . . it would be a serious misreading of Miller to conclude that juries have unbridled discretion in determining what is “patently offensive” . . . . we made it plain that under that holding "no one will be subject to prosecution for the sale or exposure of obscene materials unless these materials depict or describe patently offensive ‘hard core’ sexual conduct . . . ."
The language of the Miller Test was a little vague as to what kinds of standards were to be used in evaluating each of the three prongs of the Test.  The US Supreme Court eliminated some of that vagueness in a 1987 case known as Pope v. Illinois.  The court wrote:
Only the first and second prongs of the Miller test - appeal to prurient interest and patent offensiveness - should be decided with reference to "contemporary community standards." The ideas that a work represents need not obtain majority approval to merit protection, and the value of that work does not vary from community to community based on the degree of local acceptance it has won. The proper inquiry is not whether an ordinary member of any given community would find serious value in the allegedly obscene material, but whether a reasonable person would find such value in the material, taken as a whole.
The phrase reasonable person should be understood here in its special, legal sense.   Specifically, the standards of a reasonable person do not vary from community to community.  This, then, acts as another check on the latitude juries have in defining obscenity.  Serious value must be judged by the standards of a theoretical, reasonable person, not by the standards of just one community, and any material that has such value cannot be found to be obscene.

Libraries, of course, rarely, if ever, acquire materials that meet this legal definition of obscene.  Not surprisingly, then, all or most of the books that are argued about in any typical library challenge are also not obscene.   Of the challenged books I’ve reviewed on this blog, I’ve yet to find even one that is obscene.

If the pro-censors really want to accomplish something, they’re going to have to start by giving up their exaggerated word play.  Claims that books are “inappropriate,” “pornographic,” “encourage homosexuality,” “teach witchcraft,” and the like, are vague and sloppy and don’t tell anything about whether or not a book is protected speech.  Given that the pro-censors want to limit access to speech that clearly is protected, they’re going to have to begin by honestly facing the limitations courts have already defined, and finding ways to work within those.  Groundless claims about obscenity are pointless, as are over-played assertions that local communities can redefine that term at will.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vamos a Cuba?

In the midst of my sharp criticism of SafeLibraries, I think it only fair to mention a positive note.  In spite of a small excess of drama, his post today on Vamos a Cuba was fairly accurate.

The case was about the removal of a book titled Vamos a Cuba from a school library.  The school board claimed it removed the book due to factual inaccuracies, while some citizens felt their motivation was political. The aggrieved citizens had their day(s) in court, and lost.  In February an appeals court made their determination that the motivation of the school board was what they claimed: one of factual accuracy.  This is newsworthy now because the US Supreme Court just declined to hear an appeal, making the decision of the appeals court final.

There is nothing surprising or dramatic in this case.  The power of a school board to regulate the educational content of both classroom and school library is well established (at least since the Board v. Pico case of 1982, if not earlier).  School boards can make choices about books as long as their motivations are genuinely pedagogical, and not mere disagreement with the views expressed in any book.

In this case, the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit examined the contents of the challenged book and the claims made by the school board.  The court sided with the school board in two important details: 1) that the book contained factual errors, and 2) these factual errors were the reason the school board chose to remove the book.  Those determinations being made, it was then clearly within the power of the school board to remove the challenged book from the school library. The ACLU's attempt to appeal that decision to the US Supreme Court was quite a long shot indeed, and did not succeed.  It was a long shot because the Supreme Court would generally prefer to rule only on the constitutional issues at hand, and there didn't seem to be any left.  It would be very unusual for the Supreme Court to override the appellate court's findings of fact about the errors in the book or the motivations of the school board.  Recall that in the Pico case, the Supreme Court defined the constitutional limits on the school board's power, then sent the case back to a lower court for determination of the facts about the school board's motivations (at which point the school board gave up).

The drama that SafeLibraries would like to believe is implied by this case comes from statements by former Miami-Dade school board chair Frank Bolanos.  While the court's own logic was quite clear, and quite mundane, Mr. Bolanos puts a more strident spin on things. Mostly, Bolanos reveals his own mis-comprehension of the legalities.  News sources have him proclaim that "the case sets precedent for districts to back parents' rights in future cases."  Of course, no parental rights were tested in this case.  The decision rests entirely on the broad powers of a school board to regulate the educational content of schools, provided the board is genuinely motivated by educational concerns rather than disagreements with point of view.  Mr. Bolanos is also quoted as saying, "Censorship occurs when government refuses to allow people to purchase material, not when it refuses to provide that material at no charge."  Here, Mr. Bolanos clearly does NOT know what he's talking about, as his attempt to redefine the term censorship would break sharply with court precedents. The court in this matter made no such determination.  They were more practical, sticking to the factual determinations they had to make about what motivated the board to remove the book.  Mr. Bolanos, would do well to follow the example, set by the court, of sticking to the facts.

For the more legal minded: the decision of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals can be retrieved from that court's website at:

And can also be found through Westlaw and other law databases, where it is indexed variously as 557 F.3d 1177, 242 Ed. Law Rep. 519, and 21 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. C 1467.

How SafeLibraries is Wrong about a "Compelling State Interest"

I should start by saying that I agree 100% with SafeLibraries when he claims there is a compelling state interest in protecting children from inappropriate materials, or, as he endlessly quotes from the US Supreme Court's US v. ALA decision:
What I disagree with is what he does with this maxim, which is translate it into:

"Protecting Children is not Censorship"

While protecting children is a laudable goal, it is not a "get out of jail free card."  One could take many kinds actions to protect children.  Some might operate well within Free Speech or other basic civil liberties, but some might not.  If this is difficult to see in terms of Free Speech, try thinking about it in terms of a more tangible civil liberty, such as the Second Amendment's guarantee of the Right to Bear Arms.  Would it protect children if we were to confiscate all firearms now in private hands?  Clearly it would, since children all too often are injured or killed in the crossfire of misused guns.  Would it be legal to implement such a confiscation?  Clearly it would not, since the Second Amendment forbids it, regardless of goals or motivation.  Neither would it be legal to attempt to reduce all adults to reading only books that are fit for children, since the First Amendment forbids it, regardless of goals or motivation.  Simply stated, the ends do not justify the means.

To be fair, SafeLibraries often appends the word "legally" to the front of his maxim:
"Legally protecting children is not censorship"
This, of course, is a mere tautology, an exercise in circular logic that says nothing, since censorship itself is illegal (that is, the conclusion is embedded in one of the premises).

SafeLibraries counts a wider variety of actions as "legally protecting children" than courts would ever allow.  This arises from his abuse of the concept of the "compelling state interest."  The compelling state interest provides a motivation for enacting laws to protect children, but it doesn't make any and all such laws acceptable under the First Amendment.  When courts talk about this compelling state interest in terms of the kinds of laws that can actually be enacted -- as opposed to just as a motivating principle -- they always attach two conditions.  SafeLibraries is ignoring those conditions.

What the courts say, more completely than SafeLibraries tends to admit, is:

The state can restrict access to protected speech

IF there is a compelling state interest

AND the law is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest

AND the law is the least restrictive alternative available.

When you respect the constraints that the "ands" impose on the "if," you get restrictions on Free Speech that are limited enough that the courts might permit them.  If you ignore the constraints, you get a law that is overly broad, and will be overturned by the courts, as they have done time and again.

SafeLibraries' censorious rhetoric suffers from "mission creep," a process by which a reasonable goal gets expanded and expanded until it becomes unworkable and unachievable.  It is not enough for him that material that meets the current definition of obscenity can easily be prohibited under existing law.  It might be enough for him  -- I don't know -- to add some restrictions on material that is not obscene for adults but is too sexually explicit for children.  Such a goal might be achievable, but he'll never achieve it.  He undermines his own efforts by overreaching. He ignores the need for narrow tailoring and minimal restrictions, and so supports restrictions no court will stand for.  He tries to use the goal of protecting children as a "get out of jail free" card.  He tries to make the ends justify the means.

If we really want to protect children, shouldn't that include protecting the Free Speech rights that even minors have in our legal system?  If we are overzealous in attempts to protect children from certain harms, and in the process trample those rights, have we not become a source of harm to the very children we are trying to protect?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Why SafeLibraries is Wrong about Private Intervention in Public Libraries.

Much of SafeLibraries’ rhetoric depends on a claim that local citizens have a legal right to control the detailed operation of their public library, a right he claims the American Library Association is trying to take away. This authority, supposedly, allows citizens to override the decisions of librarians and library boards, and to dictate which books to buy or not to buy, dictate which children’s books get moved to the adult shelves, and dictate which books get one or another kind of a warning label. As he showed in his recent postings regarding the Cheshire, CT, controversy, no vote or other measure of majority opinion is required; apparently any sufficiently organized and noisy group can assert this authority.

It is difficult to imagine how anyone could get such a ridiculous idea.

It is obvious to anyone who bothers to think for even a minute that no group of aggrieved citizens can tell the police department what color their uniforms should be, nor dictate that the mayor’s office must buy paperclips from Office Depot rather than from Office Max. It should be equally obvious that a library is just another agency of local government. The people who work there are paid by a city or county, they report to elected or appointed officials, and are bound by state and local laws of public administration.

Individual requests or group petitions for changes in library policy or review of materials are fine: they’re as valid a means of communicating citizen interests to the library as they are to any other department of government. But they’re only requests. There is no requirement, in a library or any other part of government, that what citizens request must be implemented. It is the elected and appointed officials who must ultimately make the decision. They’re the ones who run the day-to-day operations of any government agency, and they must consider not only citizens’ input, but also the law.

Citizens who don’t like the way their elected and appointed officials are running things can try to change laws through a ballot initiative. They can try a recall campaign, if they’re motivated enough. Certainly, they can make choices about how to vote in the next election. But they can’t arbitrarily take over the day-to-day operations of the library, any more than they can take over the detailed management of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

So this right to intervene in running local library, a right SafeLibraries urges citizens to defend against ALA encroachment, does not exist at law. Am I being unkind if I call it a figment of his imagination? Given that he asserts the existence of the non-existent, there are only two other possibilities: 1) he's lying knowingly, or 2) he's just plain ignorant of the facts. I don't think he's either of those, and calling this a figment of his imagination is the kindest of the available alternatives.

Why SafeLibraries is Not to be Believed.

I really do feel regret when SafeLibraries claims I am attacking him personally, which means I’ve been feeling regret often of late.  I think this is unfortunate, but also necessary.  The disinformation he produces provides an awful lot of support, at times even impetus, for attempts at censorship, and so that disinformation has to be countered. 

In a recent comment to his article of November 12th, he complained about the remarks I made there.  Speaking in the first person he asked, “I'm IMAGING things? I'm putting words into people's mouths? These are not personal attacks going directly to my mental acuity and innate honesty?”

Well, they do go to his mental acuity and innate honesty.  But they’re not personal attacks. All I did was point out his factual errors.   If his mental acuity and innate honesty are called into question by the factual inaccuracies he presents, that is his fault, not mine.  His position seems to be that I should not be too pointed in revealing his inaccuracies, lest I inadvertently reveal that he is an unreliable source of information.  That is not a reasonable demand.

Having been banned from SafeLibraries’ blog, I am now free to speak my mind without struggling to find the invisible mine field of what he thinks amounts to a personal attack.  I have no doubt that he will consider this entire essay, and several that follow, to be one giant personal attack.  I don’t see it that way.  I’m trying to point out his factual errors.

Let me start with some positives.  SafeLibraries is a smart guy.  He has studied his issues at length, has read widely, and has shown that he can distill information from various sources into a coherent whole.  He has a certain flair for argumentation, indicating a relatively quick wit as well.  I suspect also that in his own way he even has a certain sense of honesty in his work.  It would be easy to dismiss SafeLibraries if he were clearly stupid or an obvious liar.  He is neither of those, and is therefore a force to be reckoned with.

In spite of these positive traits, I find the majority of his blog and web posts to be misleading in the extreme.  This is a compliment to his gift with words, and maybe even to his dedication to whatever his underlying ideology really is, but it is certainly not a compliment to the balance or factuality of the analyses he produces. 

SafeLibraries’ prolific conversion of information into disinformation is based in the variety of “honesty” he seems to work with.  This brand of honesty is not especially unusual, but it is quite dangerous to anyone interested in a facts rather than fantasy. Generally, he tries to ensure each individual statement he makes is true in some sense.  Unfortunately, he is far less concerned with whether or not the sense in which his statement is true has anything to do with the sense that is taken home by the reader.  In other words, the truth value of what he says is different from the truth value of what he communicates.

For example, consider his characterization of Toni Morisson’s book The Bluest Eye.  SafeLibraries has called this the “bestiality book.”  Now, in a certain sense, that is an accurate characterization: the book does contain the word bestiality.  But the idea set in the minds of SafeLibraries’ readers by his statement is that the book is about bestiality, or at least contains significant descriptions of acts of bestiality.  I have read this book and can say with certainty that it contains not the slightest hint of any description or definition of such an act.  It does contain the word bestiality, exactly once.   And this is precisely what I mean about the difference between what he says and what he communicates.  He said the book is a “bestiality book,” and what he said is true, in some sense.   But what he communicated to his reader is that the book contains descriptions of acts of bestiality, and this is completely false. 

That is why I made a big deal recently of his frankly small gaffe in turning a paraphrase of Judith Krug's words into a direct quote.  He knows this violates journalistic and academic principles of writing, and is usually more careful than that.  A similar gaffe occurred in his letter to the Leesburg, Florida, commissioners, when he clearly gave the impression that the US v. ALA Supreme Court decision allowed restrictions on books as well as internet content (it doesn't).   These two examples seem unusual to me because I can’t imagine any interpretative context which allows them to be true in any sense.  That is, they seem to me to be bold-faced lies.  I suspect, however, that I’m missing something.  Somehow, somewhere, in his mind there is a way of interpreting these statements that makes them true in at least one possible sense, however unimaginable that might be to anyone else. 

His verbal shell-games are fast, frequent, and massively misleading, as even a quick review of some his recent article headlines reveals.  Defending the use of The Bluest Eye in high school curricula becomes “Racist ALA Supported Bestiality for Howell, MI, Children Because Author Is Black.”  The firing of circulation desk attendants after a year of interfering in multiple library policies is portrayed as “Librarians Fired for not Pornifying Child.”  A guest article promoting awareness of the commonality of pornography use is twisted into “NCAC Promotes Porn” (whatever that means). 

This general treacherousness with words is not random.  His spin-doctoring is carefully directed to prop up a set of core claims that he is unable to support by more factual means. In the interest of brevity, I have picked the six of these core claims that appear to me to be the most essential to his position:
  1. Local citizens have a legal right to intervene in the detailed operation of their local library, including that they can tell the library what books to buy or not to buy, where books should be shelved, and which books should get warning stickers put on them.

  2. The policies recommended by the American Library Association (ALA), especially those protecting the Free Speech rights of minors, are solely based on an ideology committed to “sexualizing children.”

  3. A “compelling state interest” in protecting children from pornography trumps all Free Speech concerns.

  4. The recognition of “community standards” in the definition of obscenity allows each community to suppress whatever forms of expression it disapproves of.

  5. The 2003 Supreme Court decision known as US v. ALA is a major break with previous decisions on Free Speech, providing sweeping new powers to suppress age-inappropriate materials.

  6. Terms like censorship and banning apply only to pervasive prohibitions by state or federal governments, so the ALA is wrong in claiming any books have been banned in recent years, and nothing SafeLibraries proposes amounts to censorship or banning.

It seems to me that much of the rhetoric on SafeLibraries’ blog and website results from some combination of these claims.  While critical to his position, these are all easily falsified, and falsify them I shall.  For the sake of my readers’ patience, I will split that up into a series of essays to be released over the next several days.