Friday, July 24, 2009

Library Censorship in West Bend, WI

I would like to thank the Christian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU) and the West Bend Citizens For Safe Libraries (WBC4SL) for their accomplishments:

  • By inventing controversy where none existed, they've provided free advertising for books that many would otherwise never know existed.
  • Some may even read these books.
  • They've brought attention to the unfortunate fact that attempts at censorship are still alive and well in these United States.
The books they object to are not unusual. In fact, they are abundantly common. For example, they specifically name Francesca Lia Bock's Baby Be Bop and Harris and Emberly's It's Perfectly Normal. These books are found in high school and public libraries across Wisconsin and the rest of the U.S. They are classified as "Young Adult" in most of them, and are available to most library patrons without age limitations (don’t take my word for it, check some online catalogues).

It is clear from much of the rhetoric on this issue that many of those objecting to these books simply have not read them. I went to my local library, found both in the Children's section, and read them. Baby Be Bop is a compelling and artistically written short story about an adolescent struggling for self-acceptance in the face of growing awareness of his own homosexuality. It is gritty and probably beyond the understanding of younger children, but addresses issues many American adolescents must face. It’s Perfectly Normal is a book of medical information, endorsed by doctors, appropriate for teens entering or experiencing puberty. It is frank, but by no means lurid, and fills a need for simple and honest information many adolescents experience.

The best way to understand the WBC4SL is probably to take a close look at the petition they circulated and submitted to the library board (see links on the Sources page of this blog). Loaded with disinformation and legal-sounding misrepresentations of obscenity law, the main objective of the petition is to inflame public opinion rather than to achieve any practical end. By repeating a call for restrictions on pornographic materials, it insinuates into the minds of the public the notion that the West Bend library houses such materials. Of course, the library has no such books, nor does the claim make any sense: if the library were clearly violating obscenity law, objecting patrons could simply call the police to have the matter taken care of.

Let's be clear on this point. The materials held by the library, including those specifically objected to by the CCLU and WBC4SL, are not obscene. They are not even close to obscene. West Bend citizens will see more objectionable material on MTV and the Discovery Health Channel, both of which are carried by local cable television services.

The first item on the petition, "Reclassification of Youth-Targeted Pornographic Books," is meaningless because there are no materials in the library that meet the criteria they've written. Out of legal ignorance the WBC4SL assume that terms like "prurient" and "patently offensive" are understood in the same way by everyone, when in fact they are notoriously difficult to pin down. The WBC4SL would have to provide much more detailed criteria before this item would be even remotely practicable. The petition also ignores the practical side of the proposed restriction: how will library staff decide which patrons can check out or view which materials? For more on this point, see the Obscenity Law post on this blog.

Item 2, "Visual identification of explicit material," suffers from exactly the same shortcomings as the first item. Of course, any such mark on library holdings would act as a beacon to anyone seeking sexual or controversial material.

Item 3, "Restrict Access to Library-produced Sexual Content Online," is by far the most disturbing part of the petition. It proposes to restrict which books the library can advertize on its website, and restrict what the library can say about the books it holds. This is a gross violation of free speech and a gross attempt at censorship.

Item 4, "Balanced Literature on Controversial Issues," is entirely moot. The library already has an extensive collection of materials by conservative religious, political, and social writers, including James Dobson, Tim LaHaye, Ann Coulter and Kent Hovind. Again, check the online catalogue.

Item 5, "Children's Internet Protection," completely ignores the fact that the library already has an effective policy that limits computer use to adults and to minors with parental permission. The library can do more in this area, but the petition ignores, again, the detailed practicalities involved. Kid-safe computing in the library will require planning, equipment, and funding. For more in this point, see the Internet Access post on this blog.

Looking at the WBC4SL petition, blog, and other materials, one can not avoid the obvious conclusions:

  • The WBC4SL want to abdicate their parental responsibility to be aware of and manage their own children's use of public resources.
  • They want the library to treat other people's children as members of the WBC4SL would treat their own children.
  • They do not comprehend the basics of obscenity law, what censorship is, the principles of free speech and equal access, or the relationship among these themes. This has been pointed out to them, and they have refused to educate themselves.
  • They seem to think that as a tax-funded institution a library must be extraordinarily narrow with regard to which social groups it serves, when the reverse is actually true. As a tax-funded institution, the library must meet especially high standards for free speech, equal access, and inclusiveness.
  • They imagine that their particular social, political, and religious views are representative of the broader community around them.
  • The WBC4SL is homophobic, since the theme that unites most of the materials they object to is that they mention homosexuality without condemnation.


  1. Welcome to the fray! Well written. I will be back to read more.

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