Saturday, August 29, 2009

Gay America : Struggle for Equality

Gay America : Struggle for Equality, by Linas Alsenas, published in 2008 by Amulet Books, New York

What a great book! I have to thank Ginny and for putting it on THE MAZIARKA LIST, since I might never have known about it otherwise.

Written for high-school-aged teens, Gay America is a brief history of gay rights movements in the U.S. It touches lightly on the colonial period through the 19th century, then concentrates mostly on the 20th. Changes in public attitudes, scientific understanding, and politics are described, the Roaring Twenties, social changes wrought by WWII, the Cold War, the Stonewall Riots of 1969, civil rights movements of the 1970s, anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant, gays in the military, the AIDS crisis, the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, and much more. The final chapter covers the early 21st century, including the Supreme Court's reversal of sodomy laws, gay marriage and domestic partnership, gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, etc. It manages at least to mention, and point to other sources with more detail on, a number of important historical figures who have faded from public awareness, such as Emma Goldman, an anarchist, feminist, birth-control advocate, gay rights advocate (and straight herself), active in the early 1900s!

Heavily illustrated and with double-spaced text, the book is easy for young adults to read without seeming childish. The material is too dense for younger children to plough through, and presumes that the reader has an understanding of human sexuality. In general the book might be too technical for children younger than about 14. It is Frank and honest in its discussion of sexuality, but is not at all lurid.
Images of nudity or genitalia: none
Images of sexual activity: none
Descriptions of sexual acts: none
Strong language or "dirty" words: none
A relatively recent publication, few libraries have it yet. In my opinion, more should carry it. My online search shows it in at least 16 school and public libraries in Wisconsin, and hundreds across the US. The copy in my hand is an interlibrary lone from the Little Rock public library, and it has the YA/Young Adult sticker on its spine. and Barnes & Noble both give the reading level/age range as "Young Adult". A Kirkus review on Google Books includes the following statement:
What results is a well-written, topical and eye-catching work that simultaneously fulfills the need for assignments and literary nonfiction pleasure-reading forays. Middle- and high-school students should walk away feeling informed;
For an anti-gay crusader like Ginny Maziarka, Gay America is the kind of book that is the most frightening -- and therefore most objectionable -- of all. For one thing, it is not all obscene, so it cannot easily be suppressed. On top of that, it dares not merely to suggest, but actually to demonstrate, that gays and lesbians have a real history in these United States, have contributed to that history, and are human beings with full citizenship. It is not in the least bit kind to homophobes, and demonstrates how the sweep of 20th century changes in science and law have completely undermined archaic worldviews such as Ms. M's.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Geography Club as Metaphor

As I read Geography Club for yesterday's review, I couldn't help but think of the story as a metaphor for the West Bend library.

In Geography Club, a small group of students start a high school club by and for themselves as gay and questioning teens. But they're afraid the school administration won't allow it, and are afraid of being labeled by other students. Their solution to the problem is to call their club the Geography Club. Why? Because geography is so boring that no other students would ever want to join, and nobody in the administration will pay attention to it.

As I read, I wondered what the West Bend library would be like after every aggrieved group of whiny adults had their turn at removing the books they object to. The pro-gay books would go, then the anti-gay books. The atheist and agnostic books would go, then all the Christian literature. The liberal/progressive political books would go, then the conservative. Needless to say, any factual book of history will disappear along the way.

I see the library silent and empty. Rows and rows of empty shelves. One, lone atlas, standing by itself.

Geography Club

Brent Hartinger's Geography Club is a novel about gay teenagers in a typical American high school. The story is about the awkwardness and uncertainties of the teenage years, cliques and peer pressure, honesty and forgiveness.

Geography Club is for young adults, and most parents wouldn't want their younger children to read it. Since it is about teenage feelings and relationships, it does have some sexual content. There is also some strong language, capturing the way teenagers speak to one another when no adults are present. There are no descriptions of sexual activity at all. But it is clear from the story that some of the characters are having sex. There are descriptions of kissing, and passing mention of a health education class in which the teacher used a cucumber to demonstrate the proper use of a condom. The most sexually explicit passage in the book is one in which the main character explains his discomfort in the locker room after P.E. (p. 4):
But one sure way to become the least popular guy was to have people think you might be gay. And not being gay wasn't just about not throwing a bone in the showers. It was a whole way of acting around other guys, a level of casualness, of comfort, that says, "I'm one of you. I fit in." I wasn't one of them, I didn't fit in, but they didn't need to know that.
I have no doubt that some parents will find this book objectionable. This would be especially true for parents who believe their teenage children don't know anything about sex, don't have sexual feelings, and wouldn’t act on those feelings if they did have them. For parents more in contact with the real universe, Geography Club is likely to cause no more than minor discomfort.

As to anything of an "explicit pornographic nature," to use Maziarka's phrase, there is nothing. Nothing at all.

Having read the whole book, I will make one assertion: Ginny Maziarka hasn't read it. She hasn't even skimmed over it. She's condemning books she doesn't know anything about.

Consider her comments during a March 16th interview on WBKV radio ( click HERE to go to the station's website and play the audio; Geography Club is mentioned just around minute 09:00). She talks about the need for parents to be able to identify books that might be inappropriate for their children, and says of the book:
It's not about geography, and it's not about anything to do with school. But if I was a parent looking at Geography Club, I wouldn't be in the least bit suspicious that there would be anything pornographic inside of it, which there is.
If that isn't clear enough, consider what she wrote to the library about it (this is included in a handout prepared by the library. Click HERE to see the whole handout; this note is on the 11th page):
Dear Mr. Tyree, Ms. Cantrell, West Bend Library Board Members, And Attorney Schanning,

Attached please find a list of 11 books we would like to addend to our original complaint of sexually explicit books.

In accordance with state statutes concerning pornographic materials for minors, we are asking for the removal of these books in addition to our original request of:
1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower and
2. The Geography Club.

We believe that the explicit pornographic nature of these books is inappropriate for minors/juveniles and should not be made readily available in the young adult or juvenile fiction areas of our library.

<. . . lines omitted . . .>

Jim and Ginny Maziarka
Do you think she had the slightest idea of the contents of Geography Club? I don't.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Baby Be-Bop and the CCLU (etc.)

Earlier this month I reviewed Francesca Lia Block's Baby Be-Bop. I won't repeat the review here, but I do want to make an additional point about the book.

I was reminded of Baby Be-Bop a few days ago as I reviewed the public statement of Robert Braun, president of the "Christian" Civil Liberties Union, at the June 2nd public meeting in West Bend (click here to see the video on YouTube). Mr. Braun got the name of the book wrong, calling it "Bo-Bop" instead of "Be-Bop". He quoted it as containing the instruction "kill the [n-word]," a phrase that does NOT, in fact, appear anywhere in the book. The n-word is used, exactly once (p. 16), in a context that illustrates some of the kinds of prejudice the main character has experienced. Braun also complained about the use of the word faggot. This word does occur once or twice in the text, but again, as an illustration of the kinds of prejudice the main character is victimized by.

Mr. Braun railed against bigoted language as if describing the views espoused by the book. The view of the book is plainly the opposite of that. I'd like to say that Braun was lying, but I suspect that's not the case. More likely, he just hadn't read the book, and hoped nobody else had either.

And isn't that the overall pattern? While Ginny Maziarka and the WBC4SL are not the same thing as the CCLU, they all seem to be DOING the same thing: condemning books without bothering to investigate their contents. Yes, Baby Be-Bop is on the list of books Maziarka objects to.

Maziarka's February letters to the library made it clear that her initial position was motivated by homophobic intolerance. Although sociopathic, this was at least internally consistent, in the sense that most of the books she listed had some kind of gay-related theme. Of course, you don't have to read books to tell that about them. You can determine their theme from titles and library catalogue entries. However, the moment she re-branded her fight as one opposing obscenity, that little bit of internal consistency evaporated. She didn't bother to think through the changes implied by the re-branding. She just took her list of books and started calling them obscene instead of pro-gay, assuming that would be an easier sell.

It is now painfully obvious that Ginny Maziarka has not read or even carefully reviewed these books. It is obvious she has not thought out in her own mind the criteria that determine what is or is not obscene. It seems not really even to have occurred to her that it is necessary to have criteria in order to make this determination.

I guess I'm just catching up to the realization made by many West-Benders months ago: Ginny Maziarka doesn't really want to accomplish anything, she just wants to complain.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Heather Has Two Mommies

One of the books to which Maziarka has objected is Heather Has Two Mommies, written by multi-award winner Leslea Newman, and published by Alyson Publications in Los Angeles. It is listed in West Bend library documents among "Books presented by Jim [&] Ginny Maziarka for reconsideration on 2/12/09." This review is based on the 10th Anniversary edition, which is the version at the West Bend library.

Heather Has Two Mommies is a short, illustrated children's story about a little girl who goes to pre-school for the first time. There she learns that not all families are like hers. She realizes that she has two mommies, while some other kids have a mommy and a daddy, some have two daddies, some have only one parent, some have parents who are divorced, and some of the kids are adopted.

There are absolutely no illustrations or textual descriptions of a sexual nature. There is no nudity, no sexual situations. Heather's two mommies are not shown in bed, in any state of undress, or engaging in any intimate activity. One illustration shows the little girl getting a hug from one of her mothers, and another shows her getting a hug from her pre-school teacher. The two mothers, on the other hand, are neither shown nor described as hugging, kissing, or even holding hands.

Labeling this book "obscene" goes beyond any stretch of values. Anyone terming this book "obscene" needs a therapist, now.

In spite of the complete absence of even a hint of anything sexual, the author writes in the book's afterword, "as the author of Heather Has Two Mommies, I have been called the most dangerous writer living in America today." This has been one of the most frequently challenged books, and at one point copies were being stolen from public libraries in an effort to suppress it. The book's true crime is found in the words of the pre-school teacher: "It doesn't matter how many mommies or how many daddies your family has. . . . The most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other." and Books-A-Million list the reading level as "Ages 4-8," while Barnes and Noble and Borders give no age range. Online searches show at least 42 public, college, and university libraries in Wisconsin have a copy, many classifying the book as Juvenile fiction.

2nd OPEN CHALLENGE TO GINNY MAZIARKA: Post a comment to this blog that explains your objection to Heather Has Two Mommies. Tell us clearly what it is about this book you find objectionable, and state in practical detail what you think the library should do with this book. If you feel your explanation needs more space than a blog comment allows, post a full article on your own WISSUP blog and leave a link in a comment here. In fact, if you produce an updated list of the books you object to, or a list of practical standards for defining which books are objectionable, I will gladly publish them here on my blog. (Of course, you should expect your response to be scrutinized and debated).

Maziarka has so far declined to respond to my first open challenge, regarding Hear Me Out!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Spiral Into Medievalism

In an article this morning, the Fond du Lac Reporter summarizes the West Bend library controversy. I was struck by one particular paragraph quoting Library director Michael Tyree:
“About 10 days ago, the couple filed an open records request for the library’s expenditures involving reimbursements. I gave them that. Now, another person within their group of supporters wants us to re-catalog books that are science but from a creationist viewpoint. I told her no,” Tyree said.
I've been waiting for exactly this to happen. Maziarka's attempt to control library contents and policies to meet her political agenda establishes a ridiculous but dangerous precedent. The alliance of supporters forming the WBC4SL has to be a fractious group with a variety of such political agendas. This so naturally parallels the creationist-evolution debate in public schools that I've been surprised NOT to hear earlier of this attempt in West Bend.

All I know about the creationist-evolution angle in West Bend is what I've read in the article referenced above. Anybody out there with more details, please post more here.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Hear Me Out!

One of the books to which Maziarka has objected is Hear Me Out!: True Stories of Teens Educating and Confronting Homophobia, edited by Frances Rooney, and published by Second Story Press in Toronto. It is listed in West Bend library documents among "books presented by Jim [&] Ginny Maziarka for reconsideration on 2/12/09."

Hear Me Out! is a collection of 20 first-person accounts written by lesbian, gay, and transgender teens of various cultural backgrounds. Their stories describe their individual processes of recognizing and coming to terms with their sexualities, and dealing with homophobia, both internal and external. The stories are at times compelling, at times sad and frustrating.

This book is about self-acceptance and cultural prejudice; it is not about sex. There are a few black-and-white drawings and photographs, none of a sexual nature. Two photographs depict a pierced nipple, evidently of a male. One small photograph shows the faces of two young men about to kiss. That's as racy as this book gets in either text or images; there are no descriptions of sexual activity. A small amount of strong language is used by the authors in describing various attitudes they encounter. One of the writers went so far as to asterisk out the vowels in strong words (e.g, "sh*t"). There is some verbal abuse recorded, as some of the writers describe how they were taunted by others. There is little in the way of physical violence, although one writer describes her father nearly killing her.

Online searches show that this book is shelved in at least 27 public and high-school libraries in Wisconsin. It is classified "Young Adult" in most of them. Barnes and Noble shows the "Age Range" for this book as "12 and up," while lists the "Reading level" as "Young Adult." An online review by Reed Business Information lists the age range as "Grades 9 and up."

Is it prurient, patently offensive, or without serious value? NO, not by any stretch of the imagination.

AN OPEN CHALLENGE TO GINNY MAZIARKA: Post a comment to this blog that explains your objection to Hear Me Out!. Tell us clearly what it is about this book you find objectionable, and state in tangible, practical detail what you think the library should do with/to this book. If you feel your explanation needs more space than a blog comment allows, post a full article on your own WISSUP blog and leave a link in a comment here. (Yes, you should expect your response to be scrutinized and debated).

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Movie Ratings for Books?

And I thought I was done. But then Ms. Maziarka posted on WISSUP about a Kewaskum Librarian rejecting ALA guidelines.

The usual for the WISSUP blog: quotes out of context, only tangentially related to each other or to the issues raised by the WBC4SL, somehow portrayed as support for the WBC4SL position, as long as you don't think too carefully. In this WISSUP post, both of the quotes from the ALA are taken out of context to an extent that alters their meaning. The ALA acknowledges that removing ratings that are part of original materials would be inappropriate, and is careful to distinguish between viewpoint-neutral labels from attempted censorship:
Labels on library materials may be viewpoint-neutral directional aids designed to save the time of users, or they may be attempts to prejudice or discourage users or restrict their access to materials. When labeling is an attempt to prejudice attitudes, it is a censor’s tool. The American Library Association opposes labeling as a means of predisposing people’s attitudes toward library materials.
If Mazaiarka is correctly representing the position of the Kewaskum librarian, we can conclude that neither Maziarka nor the librarian bothered to read the ALA interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights they are quoting.

What really jumped out at me, though, was her proclamation of support for a PABBIS position that rating information should be "objective and quantitative." Odd language from someone who says there are dirty books in the library, but won't say WHICH books are dirty, and won't specify a set of standards to be used to decide the question.

OK. So there are rating systems for some movies and music. While one can argue about those ratings, we all have at least some idea what they mean, since they are applied by formal institutions that can actually spell out the criteria they use.

But what has any of that to do with books? The WBC4SL petition was about books, not movies or music in the library. While there are age-appropriateness ratings from various reviewers that anybody can look up online, there is no standardized system in use for rating books. By what criteria, then, by what specific standards, do we get a warning label on Baby Be-Bop or Heather Has Two Mommies, as Maziarka has demanded?

What Maziarka fails to realize, or just won't admit, is that most public libraries already have a rating system in place that is similar to the rating system for movies. Libraries typically divide books into Children's (Juvenile), Young Adult, and General (that is, no special classification, often mistakenly called "adult"). This equates to a four-way classification system. Children's books are generally G-rated. Young Adult books roughly equate to PG-13. Most books in a library are UR for unrated. The fourth category, X-rated, is implicit in the criteria used for book acquisition: very few public libraries have ANY X-rated material. The only movie rating that is missing for books is R, which is merged into the library equivalent of UR.

What, then, does Maziarka want? The library ALREADY HAS a system in place similar to that used for rating movies.

Maziarka may be lying to herself as much as to to the community. She SAYS she wants a book rating system similar that used for movies and music lyrics, but the library already has such a system, and it isn't good enough for her. That's because she's more interested in politics than in protecting children. She's not interested in objective criteria or quantifiable measures, because she doesn't want to be pinned down. She wants a label that says only "Maziarka Objects," and expects the rest of the world to have enough ESP to implement that without her having to explain it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Swan Song

The fall semester is about to begin! I've got a syllabus to update, study guides to review, and soon there will be papers to grade, etc. I'll have a lot less time for my censorfreelib blog and I'll still keep an eye on the blogs, but just won't have the same kind of time for it that I had over the summer. I've got a couple more books reviews to post, then my output will drop off quite a bit.

At this point, I suspect I'm preaching to the choir, if to anybody at all. I've tried to call attention to the details I thought most important, and to make sure there was basic documentation of the debate, just in case the bullies were able to force the library to remove some entries from its website, however unlikely that might seem.

The process of learning about the Censorship debate in West Bend has been fascinating and at times disturbing. Before I switch attention to other things, I wanted to leave a summary of what I think I've learned. It's just one guy's opinion, from 39,000 feet.

It seems to me that those resisting censorship in West Bend have the stronger position by far. Of course, I would tend to think that, since that's the side I agree with. But I think my assessment is based in sound analysis. In particular, the law plainly favors the anti-censorship side. No judge is going to find the books in the West Bend library to be obscene or dangerous to minors. No judge will tolerate re-shelving, labeling, restricting access, or removing books to favor one or another political agenda. Nor would a judge force the library to acquire books on a topic so scientifically discredited as "reparative" therapy. And in the unlikely event that some low-level judge did side with the would-be censors, that decision would quickly be overturned on appeal .

On the other hand, the would-be censors of West Bend -- the WBC4SL, SafeLibraries, the CCLU, etc. -- don't have much to work with. Their comprehension of the legal framework of their own issues is somewhere between infantile and delusional. It is also clear that they lack the nuance and polish that makes more adept politicians capable of achieving real-world change. They are simply out of their depth.

At a lower level, however, the would-be censors of West Bend have real political power and real political ability. By innuendo, and by innuendo alone, they have convinced many citizens that the library actually has pornographic materials on the children's shelves. They have excited many to (self-)righteous indignation. Elected officials, many perceiving a need to pander to the religious right, fear the bloc of votes the would-be censors might represent, and the public controversy they've shown they can create. This is not high politics. It is the equivalent of stirring up a mob to grab their pitchforks and torches and go storm the castle gates. Nonetheless, it is a crude form of power that should be respected and even feared. Vigilance is called for.

Is this a "local" West Bend issue? It really is, although not in the way most people think. Homophobic bigotry, attempted censorship, and right-wing bullying are in no way unique to West Bend. Regardless of so-called "community standards," the Constitutional principles of Free Speech and Equal Protection are not subject to local override. Challenges to those principles are, by definition, national issues. But this particular battle is low politics. It is trench warfare, and the trench is in West Bend. While there are state and national resources available for support, it is the citizens of West Bend who will have to maintain the front-line vigil.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Monsters from the Id: The Library as Metaphor

The picture of the library painted by the WBC4SL, CCLU, and SafeLibraries is symbolically complex.

First, there's the American Library Association, in reality a small organization with at most an advisory role to any other library in the country. But to the would-be censors of West Bend, the ALA is some kind of evil empire, strong-arming control away from local citizenry, importing foreign ideas, as if somehow the Constitution in Washington were different from the Constitution in small-town Wisconsin. It's all very reminiscent of Red Scare rhetoric, and I keep waiting for the blog post on "fifth columns" and "sleeper cells."

Then there are the library staff. They, apparently, have an "anything goes" policy, imported from the ALA. They've put obscene materials on the shelves, and somehow keep it there even though it's illegal (yet are never prosecuted, which must be part of the conspiracy). They insist children be allowed to examine those materials because they want to sexualize the innocent. And they censor opposing points of view, since they won't shelve enough books on "reparative" therapy that could "cure" teens of homosexuality -- never mind that medical and psychological experts have warned that "reparative" therapy is ineffective at best, and more likely just plain harmful.

And don't forget the library patrons, a good portion of whom are predators and sociopaths. People are having sex in the bathrooms, masturbating in front of porn-laden computer screens, and traumatizing children and adults alike. And again that same mystery: large numbers of people are witnessing crimes in progress but nobody ever thinks to call 9-1-1. Apparently, they're dissuaded by the "anything goes" library staff, under the control of the multi-tentacled ALA.

I have no doubt that there are elements of truth on all of this. Some won't like the policies of the ALA, some will find certain books objectionable, and yes crimes are sometimes committed on library premises, as they are committed in almost any venue where large numbers of people gather. (Parents would be wise to remember that no public library is a school or day-care center, and that they can't just drop their kids there on the assumption that they are being supervised by a responsible adult.)

But the claims of the would-be censors go far beyond the truthful elements upon which they build. They connect the dots in a way that builds a picture with little relationship to reality. If we have to evaluate their claims as allegations of fact, we are left with little choice but to term them paranoid delusion.

But maybe there's another level of analysis that can be used. Maybe the surface meanings are less relevant, whether the would-be censors are consciously aware of it or not. Maybe for them, the library is a mythic symbol. The library has become the deep, dark woods through which the hero must pass, battling dragons and ogres along the way. This actually works, but the censors have forgotten that the deep-dark woods is a metaphor for our own minds, and the monsters are aspects of the self.

What then is so scary about the library? How does it get so deep and dark?

That, I suspect, is obvious. What is so scary about a library, any library, is that it contains ideas. More to the point, libraries contain many, varied ideas, multiple voices and multiple viewpoints, the left and the right, the conservative and the progressive, the straight and the gay, the religious and the secular. If one is not careful, one might be forced to confront the fact that not everyone thinks alike. The true horror of the library is that a child might learn that the world is not quite the way his or her parents claim It to be.

Monday, August 17, 2009

"But we're the taxpayers and they're the homosexuals!"

For a couple of years in the 90s I was a commissioner on a county-level human relations commission in California. At that time the state had not yet implemented the full-featured Domestic Partnership system it now has in place. Various local attempts had been made for years, and I found myself in the middle of one them.

The county board of supervisors in my area decided they would try to implement a simple Domestic Partnership (DP) registry. It conferred no rights or responsibilities; it was just a document that might help some committed-but-unmarried couples (both same-sex and opposite-sex) get insurance or other DP benefits from private employers that offered them. The supervisors didn't do a very good job of sounding out public opinion in advance or coordinating with gay community organizers. They surprised everybody, and the commission I sat on was the venue for the first rounds of public hearings.

The hearings were alternately uplifting and horrifying. I was not surprised that there was vocal opposition, but I was surprised at the viciously hateful and hurtfully bigoted things some people were willing to stand up and say in public. Bibles were quoted and the usual anti-gay tropes were repeated without critical thought. Paranoia ruled. One man begged the supervisors not to implement the registry because it would cause the extinction of the human race, since, apparently, people would stop reproducing.

The DP opponents began circulating a petition to force the issue onto the ballot at the next election. This resulted in both sides meeting face-to-face in grocery store parking lots and other public venues. In at least one situation, the police were called (I was never sure by whom). It was that one, small scuffle that opened my eyes to the mind-set of the DP opponents. The police officer was about to eject both sides from the grocery store parking lot when the one, lone, anti-DP petition gatherer shouted:
But we're the taxpayers and they're the homosexuals!"

Rarely in my life has so much been revealed to me in one, short sentence. And I've been reminded of that moment over the last few weeks, as I've examined the West Bend library debate. It seems to me that the would-be censors of West Bend share many of the neuroses of the anti-Domestic-Partnership activists I encountered a dozen years ago.

What did the anti-DP activist mean? Her "we" was far from inclusive. "We" are the taxpayers, but "they" aren't. "We" are a privileged class who have purchased special consideration by paying taxes to the government. "We" have the right to demand government services and "they" don't. "We" have the right to use the legal system, and "they" don't. "They" are less than full citizens. "They" aren't contributing members of "our" society. If anybody should be ejected from the parking lot, it should be "them," and not "us," because "we're" the white, middle class, heterosexual, protestant ascendancy, and "they" aren't "us."

In the short term, the anti-DP activists won. The issue never went to the ballot, because they demonstrated that the whole issue would be very messy and the supervisors backed down out of political expediency. In the process, though, they exhausted themselves. Many of the anti-DP activists felt their position was so right and obvious that they never expected organized confrontation, and were caught off guard. The uneasy alliances among the anti-DP factions were strained by the process, and the pro-DP activists had gotten better organized and learned a lot from the experience.

In the long run, the anti-DP activists lost. Within a couple of years the state passed a Domestic Partnership system with rights and responsibilities far exceeding anything our county supervisors had dared imagine. There was opposition and protest, but nowhere near enough to prevent its implementation. California's Domestic Partnership has been in place for almost ten years now.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

ACLU v. Gonzales

Another case on the "Must Read" list at the Safelibraries blog is ACLU v. Gonzales, appearing there with the caption "filters 95% effective & don't block health-related sites." Here again I have to agree that the caption is correct as far as it goes, although it is also misleadingly incomplete.

I'm not going to argue too much about this one. I've already said I support internet filters for children, as long as they're implemented with pragmatism and according to what the law really says, instead of what some wish it said. I think filters mostly work, but are not perfect, an assessment that agrees completely with this court decision, which in part acknowledges that, ". . .filters are not perfect and are prone to some over and under blocking . . . ."

What was it about? This case was actually the final blow in the demise of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). The stated goal of COPA was to protect children from pornographic materials by requiring commercial websites dealing in pornography to take steps to verify that their customers were over the age of 17. An earlier attempt at this, the Communications Decency Act (CDA), had previously been overturned, and the COPA was an attempt to fix some of the constitutional problems of the CDA.

What happened? The district court's decision in ACLU v. Gonzales overturned the COPA, holding the act unenforceable because it violated the First Amendment. When the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, the district court's decision became final. The district court found the act failed to achieve it's goal because it did nothing to prevent minors from accessing non-commercial pornography, and could do nothing about the many pornography sites based outside the US. A large part of the court's logic was that internet filters are available at low cost, are easy to use, and are much more effective at preventing minors from accessing pornography than the burdens placed on vendors by the COPA. In fact, the whole sentence I quoted above with elipses is:
"Although filters are not perfect and are prone to some over and under blocking, the evidence shows that they are at least as effective, and in fact, are more effective than COPA in furthering Congress’ stated goal for a variety of reasons."
Is 95% good? YES, in the sense that it indicates that filters mostly work. NO, in the sense that it isn't good enough to keep a library that (mis)uses filters from getting sued. Remember that there are tens of billions of web pages out there. If we assume 20 billion pages, certainly too small a figure, then an error of merely 1% equates to 200 million pages. An error of 5% would be 1 billion pages! Of course, the practical problem is smaller than that: nobody actually tries to access all the pages that are out there.

Lesson Learned? Realistically, it only takes a few web sites, or even just one, to cause a problem. An adult really only needs to show that he or she was persistently blocked from a single legitimate site to make a First Amendment case. That's one of the reasons other court cases have acknowledged the importance of allowing adults to bypass filters on demand. Look at the recent ACLU case against Tennessee school districts with internet software that was blocking access to gay-affirming sites like Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). The total number of sites involved was a tiny fraction of the total internet, far less than 1%. It even seems that the blocking of these sites was at least partly unintentional. But foot-dragging by the school districts and service contractors still got them sued. Luckily, in this case, the school districts had the common sense to unblock the sites and settle out of court.

The full text of the decision, including the quotes above, can be read at:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Board of Education v. Pico

One recent addition to the Library Law Blog is a fascinating audio interview about the Supreme Court decision known as Board of Education v. Pico. It's twenty minutes long, in plain English, and highly informative. Click here for the audio file (mp3).

I've seen the Board v. Pico decision bandied about in the library censorship debate, and felt it needed a closer look. The Safelibraries blog, for example, lists this case as a "Must Read," and gives it the caption, "pervasively vulgar books can be excluded from public schools." This is probably a true statement as far as it goes. It is, however, incomplete.

What was it about? The school board in Island Trees, New York, decided to remove nine books from the school library. To support their action, they asserted that the nine books were "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy." Some students and their parents sued, claiming the school board infringed on the Free Speech rights of the students.

How did it turn out? Given the way this case is cited by would-be censors, it may surprise the reader to learn that the school board lost this case, and lost badly. The Supreme Court decided:
In brief, we hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to 'prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'
What the school board had wanted was a judgment saying that there was no case, that the board had the authority to remove library books as they saw fit. Instead, the court said the board could not remove books merely to suit their political opinions, and that the motivations for the removal were relevant to the question of the constitutionality of that action.

What happened next was quite interesting. The Supreme Court decision allowed the case to go back to lower courts for determination of the facts about the motivations for the removal. And there the matter ended. Realizing that they would have to clearly state the criteria they were using to decide which books to remove, the board let the case drop.

Lessons learned? While Board v. Pico was about school libraries rather than public libraries, the WBC4SL would be wise to learn from the way the school board overplayed their hand and ultimately damaged their own position. One lesson is that underlying motivations matter and are subject to scrutiny. While the WBC4SL is now crying "obscenity," the obvious homophobia of their original position(s) is a matter of public record, badly undermining their claim. The second lesson is that selection criteria matter. The WBC4SL's refusal to get specific about which books to re-shelve and/or label puts them in a position similar to that of the Island Trees school board: neither are really in a position state an honest set of criteria that are anything other than arbitrary.

Which books? A footnote in the Supreme Court's decision lists the books that the school board removed:
  1. Slaughter House Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  2. The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris
  3. Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas
  4. Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes
  5. Go Ask Alice, of anonymous authorship
  6. Laughing Boy, by Oliver LaFarge
  7. Black Boy, by Richard Wright
  8. A Hero Ain't Nothin' But A Sandwich, by Alice Childress
  9. Soul On Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver

Supreme Court Decision on Findlaw:

Summary on

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tennessee Schools Agree to Unblock LGBT Websites

Two school districts in Tennessee have agreed to change their internet filtering policies.The filters in use blocked student access to websites with information about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender issues, but did not block access to sites promoting "reparative" therapy and "ex-gay" ministries. The ACLU sued on behalf of some students. The case has ended in a settlement, which does not establish a legal precedent. Nonetheless, the school districts have agreed to unblock access to the LGBT sites.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Internet Filters Update

My previous posts on Internet Filters, Part 1 and Part 2, relied mostly on my own reading of the applicable law. Since then, I've been rummaging for sources that describe, in plain English, the opinions of real experts on the matter. I've found several I think are quite useful.

These confirm the key points I've emphasized before:
  1. Internet filters can be legal, appropriate, and practical if implemented properly, facing the real facts of the law.

  2. Internet filters are not perfect. The degree and direction of the problem varies from product to product, but they all either under-block (permit access to some objectionable material), over-block (deny access to some legitimate material), or both.

  3. The US v ALA ruling so overused by would-be censors is not a general decision about library censorship. It applies only to libraries that accept specific federal funds.

  4. The US v ALA ruling is about Internet filters for children. It is not about books or library-produced web content, re-shelving or warning stickers.

  5. The constitutionality of US v ALA very much depends on the ability of adults to unblock the computers they use.

  6. A library that doesn't allow adults to bypass filters is at risk for lawsuits. This is the "as-applied challenge" mentioned in the US v ALA decision.

  7. The idea of separate computers for adults and children is quite practical. It won't allow computers for adults to be permanently unblocked, but it will relieve library staff of a lot of administrative hassles by allowing adults to unblock those computers at will, without monitoring or intervention by library staff.

I know these sources won't convince the wanna-be censors. I'm sure they've already declared these part of the plot by the communistic American Library Association to sexualize children and turn people gay (Note to the literal-minded: this sentence is an example of sarcasm).

Nevertheless, see:

An analysis of the US v ALA decision by First Amendment specialist Julie Hildner on Findlaw, A Recent Supreme Court Decision Allowing the Government to Force Public Libraries to Filter Users' Internet Access Is Less Significant Than It Might At First Appear:

Frequently Asked Questions on the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), by the Wisconsin Library Association:

Lawfully Surfing the Net: Disabling Public Library Internet Filters to Avoid More Lawsuits in the United States, by Library law consultant Mary Minow:

Links to these and other resources can be found on the links page of:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Dangers of Intellectual Freedom!

In my post yesteray on the Dangers of the WBC4SL, I was thinking of the dangers posed to gay teens and their parents.

It seems I underestimated.

This comment was posted today on the WISSUP blog, among a string of comments on the August 9th post on American Family News coverage of the library controversy:

West Bend Citizen Advocate said...


Intellectual freedom for adults is 100% OK by me.

Intellectual freedom for minors is DANGEROUS.

August 11, 2009 8:54 AM

Phase 3: A Referendum?

In recent posts on this blog I've wondered about Phase 3, the next step, if any, that Maziarka and the WBC4SL will take in their attempt to force their homophobic and censorious agenda on the West Bend library. I certainly don't know what that step will be, but a possible hint was given this weekend in an online artcle by the American Family News Network, linked from a post on the WISSUP blog. We are told there that "the organization is examining its options, which includes a referendum."

It's impossible to guess what the details of such a referendum would be, but it's worth thinking a little about it in advance.

First, I think it's a good idea that Maziarka and the WBC4SL are exploring the possibility of a referendum. I'm talking here about the process of exploration, not about whatever referendum might eventually be placed before the voters. The exploration is a good idea because the process will be highly educational for everyone, above all for the would-be censors. At some point, they'll be forced to consult people who actually understand the applicable laws, a step they've obviously skipped so far, as evidenced by the half-baked pseudo-legalism of their petition. The process will be a rude awakening to Maziarka and the WBC4SL, who will be forced to confront the fact that their understanding of the legalities of obscenity and censorship has so far been infantile.

There's a good chance that the referendum will never make it past this exploration process, but that's far from certain. They might find a legal angle they think could work, or they might ignore the competent legal advice given them.

The details can't be predicted, but such ballot initiatives tend to follow certain patterns. One possibility, if Wisconsin ballot law allows, would be some kind of "advisory" referendum. An advisory referendum wouldn't change any laws or require any actions, it would just make a statement about values or findings. For example, it might say something like, "the citizens of West Bend find books depicting nudity to be patently offensive." Such a referendum won't directly change anything, but if drawn sufficiently narrowly, perhaps could open the door to some kinds of civil lawsuits. It would still take private funding to pursue such suits, so the real-world probability of an advisory referendum bringing about change is quite small. It will, however, enable endless rhetoric about "community standards" and "the will of the people."

A second possibility would be a referendum that is more than merely advisory, that seeks to change something in the real world. For example, a referendum might require the library to put a warning sticker on any book containing text or images descriptive of sex or sexuality. Censorship and obscenity law being what they are outside of the fantasy world of the WBC4SL, it is difficult to imagine such a referendum being legally enforceable. It is all too easy, though, to imagine such a referendum getting on the ballot, and maybe even passing. Even just getting such a measure on the ballot, let alone passing it, will force a string of suits to test its legality and enforceability, funded by the city and/or county, and depending on the details of the referendum, funded by the state and/or federal governments.

Taxpayers beware! This is all going to cost tax dollars. Moving this debate from the town hall meeting to the ballot box also forces it into the courtroom, and you're going to pay the court costs and legal fees.

Monday, August 10, 2009

WBC4SL a Danger to Children!

While Maziarka and WBC4SL claim there is something in the West Bend library that is dangerous to children, the simple fact is that the real dangers are Maziarka and the WBC4SL themselves.

In her February letters, Maziarka calls homosexuality a "condition," and makes the unsupported and unsupportable claim that "people leave homosexuality every day." Further, she insists that the library is practicing censorship by not having enough books that promote "reparative" therapy, psychological practices that attempt to change the sexual orientation of homosexuals (also called SOCE, for Sexual Orientation Change Efforts).

There are many reasons why a library might include or exclude books on SOCE, and I want to be clear that I'm not trying here to tell the library what to do. One of the factors the library might consider is that the American Psychological Association has thoroughly rejected reparative therapy as ineffective and not infrequetly causing harm. While recently reconfirmed, the rejection of SOCE by professional organizations is decades old, although some groups and individuals have been a bit slow on the uptake. I agree with Sleepless In West Bend, who wrote, "That's not censorship; it is called responsible and professional librarianship."

Let's be clear about the harm these books can do:

  • They enable anti-gay bigotry by promoting the idea that sexual orientations other than exclusive heterosexuality are a disorder, an idea rejected decades ago by the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, and the Amerian Psychological Association.

  • They give false hopes to parents concerned about a child's possible homosexuality, delaying, perhaps even terminating, the parents' process of coming to a position of acceptance.

  • They confuse children and teens who are struggling with their sexual orientation by painting a counter-scientific picture of human sexuality and offering false hopes of change.

  • They encourage parents and children to waste time and money in forms of psychotherapy that are unlikely to work.

  • They mis-represent the risks of such therapy, encouraging parents and children to engage in a process that may cause psychological harm, including low self-esteem, depression, and suicide.

That's enough from me on the point. I'd like to let the recent report on SOCE by the American Psychological Association to speak for itself. Quotes below are verbatim, but reformatted slightly to fit this blog.
"We see this multiculturally competent and affirmative approach as grounded in an acceptance of the following scientific facts: Same-sex sexual attractions, behavior, and orientations per se are normal and positive variants of human sexuality—in other words, they do not indicate either mental or developmental disorders." (p.2)

"These studies show that enduring change to an individual’s sexual orientation is uncommon. The participants in this body of research continued to experience same-sex attractions following SOCE and did not report significant change to othersex attractions that could be empirically validated, though some showed lessened physiological arousal to all sexual stimuli. Compelling evidence of decreased same-sex sexual behavior and of engagement in sexual behavior with the other sex was rare. Few studies provided strong evidence that any changes produced in laboratory conditions translated to daily life. Thus, the results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce samesex attractions or increase other-sex sexual attractions through SOCE." (pp. 2-3).

"We found that there was some evidence to indicate that individuals experienced harm from SOCE. Early studies documented iatrogenic effects of aversive forms of SOCE. These negative side effects included loss of sexual feeling, depression, suicidality, and anxiety. High drop rates characterized early aversive treatment studies and may be an indicator that research participants experienced these treatments as harmful. Recent research reports on religious and nonaversive efforts indicate that there are individuals who perceive they have been harmed. Across studies, it is unclear what specific individual characteristics and diagnostic criteria would prospectively distinguish those individuals who will later perceive that they been harmed by SOCE." (p. 3)

The following is a resolution recommended in the report, but not yet finalized by the APA:
"The American Psychological Association advises parents, guardians, young people, and their families to avoid sexual orientation change efforts that portray homosexuality as a mental illness or developmental disorder and to seek psychotherapy, social support and educational services that provide accurate information on sexual orientation and sexuality, increase family and school support, and reduce rejection of sexual minority youth." (p. 121).

[*Page numbers above refer to the The APA report on SOCE, which can be download from:

I would like to thank Sleepless in West Bend for bringing attention to this issue in a post on the APA Report and on a Press Release by PFOX, an organization that pushes "reparative" therapy.]

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Insidious Self-Censorship

For a moment, a brief moment, I almost thought that the West Bend Library debate was over. I thought that Ginny Maziarka and the WBC4SL had thrown in the towel. But I was kidding myself.

Phase One started in February, when Maziarka attempted to impose her personal homophobia on the public library. She even went so far as to claim the library itself was engaging in censorship when they wouldn't give in to her demand to add books on "leaving homosexuality," a pseudo-scientific genre rejected by experts for decades (a rejection recently reconfirmed in a press release and 138-page report by the American Psychological Association).

Phase Two started when the library properly rejected her censorious and homophobic requests, and Maziarka switched to a more covert approach, rebranding her complaint as one of protecting children from "obscene" materials in the library, and hoping nobody would bother to check the facts. She hoped for broader appeal and got it, but still not enough to bully the library into submission.

Up to now, common sense has prevailed, if just barely. And Phase Three will be . . . ?

So why would I (or anyone) think they've given up the fight? That really comes down to comments left last Sunday on the WISSUP blog. We are told there that any lists of challenged books given to the library were just "examples," not a specific list of action items, and we're told it would be "absurd and silly" to offer specific criteria for deciding which books to label and re-shelve.

You see, I had thought there was an actual plan, and it seems I was wrong about that. And if there is no plan of action, it is impossible to bring about change, so the only logical expectation is that the library status quo will remain unchanged. The admission that there is neither a list of books to suppress nor a set of standards to apply for labeling and re-shelving amounts to a concession of defeat. But let's not get ahead of ourselves (or at least of me). The rhetoric continues to flow. What else might they hope to accomplish?

For one thing, Maziarka and the WBC4SL now have a giant soapbox to stand on, and nurturing that is an end unto itself. Vagueness is now their strength. As long as they don't get specific enough for people to check their claims or evaluate their proposals, they can (and so far, do) continue making groundless accusations about pornography in the library, dangers to children, and the need for scientifically discredited books and websites on ex-gay therapy. Such claims generate controversy, polarize communities, and stir up public ire, and those are all energies that can be turned to any number of political ends, mostly with little or no connection to public libraries. In other words, there's something to be gained just from stirring the pot.

But hey, that's politics.

There is another angle in play, though. If the WBC4SL haven't been able to impose formal censorship, they might yet bring about a kind of self-censorship.

Self-censorship comes into play when people get tired of the battle, and start avoiding conflict just to have a little peace and quiet. What that means in practice depends on the individuals involved. Maybe one day a librarian will catalog a new book as Adult rather than Young Adult, just to avoid a hassle. Maybe a few books more to Maziarka's liking will be purchased at the expense of books she objects to, just to appease her. Maybe some parents will be more sensitized to the issue and discourage their children from reading challenged books. Maybe the online list of gay-themed books that started all this will quietly disappear one day from the library website. Maybe more controversy-averse library board members will be selected. The possibilities are endless.

The word for this kind of self-censorship is INSIDIOUS. It comes sporadically, in small doses, flying below the radar, attracting little attention, but moving public discourse just a little bit in the direction that Maziarka and the WBC4SL would prefer. It isn't the victory they sought, but it allows the propaganda to continue indefinitely. It is hard to fight insidious self-censorship because you can't identify every instance in which it occurs.

But if it can't be fought directly, it can be countered effectively, just by choosing to be insidiously uncensored. Just as insidious self-censorship can happen in many ways, in small doses, barely noticed, you can choose any number of creative and unique methods to be insidiously uncensored. You might, for example, donate to the library a new book describing some aspect of the demographic, cultural, and socio-political diversity that makes up modern America. When you think it's right for your child, you might encourage him or her to read a challenged book. You could participate in the nationwide Banned Books Week activities. You could put up your own private website listing gay-themed books in the West Bend library, untouchable by the WBC4SL, and update it from time to time. Put up a website listing reviews of the books objected to: "Banned in West Bend!" Here, too, the possibilities are endless.

My personal preference is for a more direct and honest debate. But if it has to be insidious, then let it be insidious all around.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Thought on Walt Whitman

I've always been a reader, but mostly of non-fiction. I enjoy literature when I get the chance, but it doesn't happen very often. When I do get the chance, I'm picky: I like to know in advance that what I'm reading will be worth my time.

That's how it happened, some years ago, that I was browsing in a book store, and chanced upon the poetry of Walt Whitman. The cover of the book reminded me of 10th-grade English, where we were taught a little about Whitman's work. Mostly, I remembered that I didn't care for it. On a whim I thumbed through the book, and noticed a page worth skimming. Surprised by what I skimmed, my skimming turned into reading. "Wait," I thought, "this isn't what I remember from 10th grade." I read more. "Wait a minute, this is actually good," I thought, "there's art and depth and emotion in this, a grasp of of the human psyche." I bought the book and read it. I was amazed.

I'm glad I rediscovered Walt Whitman for myself, even if belatedly. But I find myself resenting the school boards and curriculum committees who had managed, controlled, and limited my 10th-grade view. Their censorship was subtle, more self-imposed than overt, but it was censorship nonetheless. It had been a century since Whitman's poetry was branded "obscene" by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice and by various government officials. By today's standards, that's a quaint bit of history, yet that nineteenth century controversy still hangs as a pall over Whitman's work.

So the boards and committees wanted to play it safe. They weren't consciously thinking of censorship so much as planning to avoid possible controversy. So they made one of those compromises-by-committee that satisfies no one but at least equally irritates everyone. Whitman is too important to ignore but too controversial to explore, and that's exactly how the curriculum was configured. So the English teacher (poor fellow!) got to claim that Whitman was one of the most important of American writers, but couldn't give the evidence of that to the students. As one of those students, I was exposed to only the tiniest fraction of Whitman's work, and only the least controversial, most insipid and uninspired of his verse.

As a student who passed through that censored form of education, let me testify as an eye-witness to what I learned. First, I concluded that Whitman was rubbish. People said his work was important literature, but the examples didn't support that. They were silly. Secondly, I concluded that lovers of English literature were poseurs who didn't know what they were talking about, since they mistook fluffy nonsense for art. These conclusions were validly drawn from the information given to me, and they were as wrong as that information was incomplete.

Sad, really. School didn't introduce me to the rich experience of literature. In fact, it closed my mind to the possibilities by showing me only the pablum. No doubt many of the refinements of English literature are easily lost on a 15-year-old, but that's beside the point. The literature never had a chance. An important window on the wider world was closed to me.

I guess some would say I was being protected from something, but I'm not sure what. They didn't protect me from any real danger, just from knowledge.

This is one of the reasons I resist the various forms of censorship that still crop up today. The older I get, the more important it seems to me. As an adult now evaluating the "guidance" I received in 10th-grade English, I would say I was harmed more than helped. I seriously doubt that my personal experience is in any way unusual.

Bookstores carry many editions of Whitman's prose and poetry, including the Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Poems. His complete works can be read online at several sites, incluing the Walt Whitman Archive,

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Baby Be-Bop

Francesca Lia Block's Baby Be-Bop is one of the book's objected to by the WBC4SL. More infamously, the self-styled "Christian" Civil Liberties Union has claimed that the mere display of this book caused emotional harm to their elderly members. They requested the Library's copy of the book be turned over to them so they can burn it.

Baby Be-Bop is about an adolescent named Dirk who is struggling with a growing awareness of his same-sex attraction. It's a short story of self-doubt and dignity, about the bittersweet risks and rewards of falling in love, of secrecy and self-acceptance, of the high cost of hiding one's true self from the world, and the value of being true to one's self.

The author's language is flowery, perhaps too much so for some readers, but many will find it literally delicious to read. Block has an unusual ability to use words to evoke memories by means of colors, textures, scents, and tastes. As an example, consider a passage describing Dirk's upbringing by his grandmother Fifi:

Fifi and Dirk put flower nectar or a mixture of honey and water on their fingertips and the newborn butterflies crawled onto them, all ticklish, and practiced fanning wings that were like amber stained glass in the sun. In the garden there were also little butterflies that looked like petals blown from the roses with the almond scent. There were peaches with pits that also smelled and looked like almonds when you cracked them open. Fifi showed Dirk how to pinch the honeysuckle blossoms that grew over the back gate so that sweet drops fell onto his tongue. She showed him how to pinch the snapdragons' jaws to make them sing. (pp. 6-7)

Trying to keep his secret, Dirk starts down a path of self-hatred that leads to his being beaten up. In the delirium that follows, he meets some of his own ancestors, who guide him into a more positive, self-accepting perspective. And this is what some find so objectionable. It isn't the very slight use of strong language, or the two pages out of 106 that explore the risks of random sexual encounters. It's that the book is ultimately affirming of self-acceptance for gay men. As Dirk's great-grandmother tells him in his dream-hallucination, "any love that's love is right" (p. 66).

When I decided to write a review of Baby Be-Bop, I planned to express rage at the CCLU. After reading the book, I can't find my anger. The idea of destroying a copy of this book is just . . . Sad.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Let's Just Call It Obscene!

Given that there are no books in the West Bend Library that can legitimately be called obscene or pornographic, why would Maziarka and the WBC4SL claim there are? What motivates such obvious hyperbole?

The simple answer is that it works.

Not that it will get books labeled or re-shelved. That would require a practical set of detailed standards for real-world decisions about which books go where, and the WBC4SL have yet to get specific about that. No, the obscenity claim doesn't work in that sense.

What claiming obscenity does accomplish, though, is create an environment in which people stop thinking clearly. It assures that a significant percentage of the population will react from their gut instead of their heads. It puts censorship opponents at a disadvantage because they have to use logic and reason to battle adrenalin. It pits explanations against sound bites.

To understand why it works that way, we have to recognize that the claim isn't just about obscenity or pornography per se. This is not a rarefied debate about the value or harm of pornography and its consumption. When we're talking about public libraries, children's books, and young adults, the debate is about obscenity and children.

You probably felt your own visceral reaction on reading that last phrase. And that's what Maziarka and the WBC4SL are counting on. Human nature. We all (well, nearly all) have an instinct to protect children, certainly to protect our own. All the would-be censors have to do is touch that instinct, poke a stick at that almost universal and all-too-human fear, and our rationality flies out the window. That protective instinct is as much a weakness as a strength, and they're exploiting that to the fullest.

It has worked, and worked well. Look at some of the YouTube videos of the public meetings in West Bend, or some of the blog posts. Maziarka scored a home run! At least some citizens believe that the library has materials that are as frankly objectionable as pornographic movies. Some think there is something terribly dangerous to children in the library. Some even believe the library is breaking the law, as one blog commentator wrote, "I think the Librarians ought to be held accountable according to state and federal laws that protect children from such strong sexual content."

The key to the success of the obscenity battle cry is that it gets people to overlook their own awareness. They have a feeling that something doesn't quite add up here, doesn't quite make sense, but they ignore it. The energy created by poking a stick at our defensive instincts goads us to action. We experience cognitive dissonance but override our usual reaction to it, which is to stop and think.

For example, most people realize they ought to verify the obscenity claim. They realize that those claiming obscenity should state an author and title and say unequivocally that this book is one of the ones they think is obscene, and not dance evasively about whether the books they've identified are "just examples." Most people realize they should go to the library and look at the whole book, and not just take the WBC4SL's word for it, nor accept a few out-of-context excerpts as evidence. But not everybody will take that step. Their instincts have been provoked so their bias is toward action, even though somewhere in their heads they realize they should check the facts.

One very clear example can be seen among those who believe that the library holds materials that violate obscenity law. They say this is criminal, and yet refrain from filing a formal complaint with the police, a strong example of living with cognitive dissonance. Of course, they won't file a formal complaint because they fear the real-world consequences of filing a false police report, and that means that at some level they realize that the obscenity claim is false. But the energy created by touching the child-protection instinct is so strong that it keeps that realization from coming too close to conscious awareness. The goad to action overrides the awareness that something here just doesn't add up.

Another result of the energy created by the obscenity goad is that the many nuanced issues surrounding library books and children are reduced down to the pornography issue. For example, if you talk about "appropriate" and "inappropriate" materials, many immediately think about sexual propriety and impropriety, a gross oversimplification of the issue. It suddenly becomes binary, either-or, right or wrong, instead of including many shades of gray. Of course, age-appropriateness is about a lot more than that. Most of us realize that you don't give a college chemistry book to a ten-year-old. It isn't age-appropriate because the child's cognitive abilities aren't at that level. But suppose that ten-year-old is some kind of prodigy; then the same book becomes appropriate. The point here is that each parent must evaluate the age-appropriateness of material on the basis of the developmental path of an individual child; there is no one-size-fits all rule. But just mention obscenity and our ability to see that age-appropriateness comes in many degrees and levels immediately shuts down. Suddenly, we act is if a seventeen-year-old and a seven-year-old are cognitively equivalent, as if Jeannie and Johnnie can read the same things just because they're both eight, or shouldn’t read the same things just because they're both eight.

In the battle between wrath and reason, reason is at a clear disadvantage. Nonetheless, I think that with time and persistence, cooler heads can prevail. In part, this is a matter of insisting always on the practical details, something I've tried to focus on in many of my posts on this blog. Although it is a valid line of public discussion, I try not to get too caught up in the absolutes or legalities of what obscenity is, or what is appropriate or inappropriate. Common sense can win out by asking for clarification of the practicalities, the nuts and bolts of turning rhetoric into reality. What practical, doable standards will be used to decide which books go where and which books get a warning sticker or don't? What physical controls will be in place? What tangible goals will these achieve? Exactly which books are you saying are obscene? What standards of obscenity does that imply? If you take this out of the world of theory and bring it down to an action plan, you force people to stop and think. Eventually, they realize that their strong but vague imaginings do not correspond to any pragmatic reality. Our natural instinct to resolve cognitive dissonance can overcome our tendency to just shoot from the hip.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

And What Will Labels Accomplish?

The most recent form of the WBC4SL request, at least that we know of, asks for changes in shelving and for the placement of some kind of warning label on some books. I dealt with the re-shelving question in an earlier post, so let's take a look at labeling.

There is probably room for argument as to whether labeling amounts to censorship, and to what degree. At the very least, such labels seek to discourage young people from reading certain books, and seek to discourage parents from allowing young people to read certain books. Whether or not those goals are achieved in practice depends on a variety of factors.

But as with the re-shelving question, I don't think we have to get caught up in the legalities of labeling and censorship. The plain practicalities are clear enough.

So I ask the same questions about labeling that I asked about re-shelving. What other controls are going to be in place? Will kids be able to find labeled books in the catalog, or will they be restricted to a catalog that omits those entries? Will they be able to go to the shelves where labeled books are stored, or will they be locked out of that area? Will kids be able to sit in the library and read the labeled books, or will there by "appropriateness" monitors trolling the aisles, pulling labeled books out of kids' hands? Will kids be able to check labeled books out on Tuesday if they've turned eighteen on Monday, but not before?

So controlled a situation might be too much even for the WBC4SL (at least I hope), so let's assume that such controls are not in place. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that all we're talking about is putting a warning label on some books.

What will this achieve?

For one thing, it won't keep the kids away from the labeled books, since in our hypothetical scenario they'll be able to find them, read them, and check them out.

For another thing, it won't help parents make choices about what books to let their kids read. Think about that for a bit.

How could the proposed label possibly help parents make such choices? We've yet to see a practical list of criteria that will be used for deciding which books get labeled, so how can anyone know what the label means? Does a book on art history get a label because it includes a picture of Michelangelo's David, or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in all their naked glory? Does a book on evolution get a label because some think it's unchristian? Do we all agree that Baby Be Bop should get a warning label but It's Perfectly Normal should not? Or is it the other way around? Should the Bible have a warning label on it for its descriptions of incest, lewdness, murder, genocide, and idolatry, or should the position it takes on those matters make it immune to such labeling? Should Tim LaHaye's books on the End Times and the Second Coming be labeled because they'll scare the daylights out many children, or because they represent the views of some Christian denominations but not of others?

If all the label means is "Maziarka Objects," is it really useful? Can I trust that if there's a label on a book then there must be something in it that I don't want my kid to see? Can I be sure that if there is no label, there's nothing in it I don't want my kid to see? Of course not, since it is unlikely that any two people's standards are exactly alike, and the standards for the application of these labels have not been spelled out.

So after all is said and done, after library staff have miraculously read the minds of the WBC4SL who won't plainly state the standards they think should be used, after the librarians somehow come up with a set of standards they can put into practice, after they've spent time and energy identifying the books that meet those criteria, and after they've stuck labels on the books, every parent is in exactly the same place as before: the parent will have to look at a book to determine if it's appropriate for a particular child at a particular point in that child's development.

So my closing remark on labeling is exactly the same as it was for re-shelving. This doesn't have to be so complicated. There's an easy way out. There's a simple solution in which there is no censorship and nobody's time is wasted in frivolous political pursuits: let the librarians do their job and let individual parents make decisions about their own children's use of library materials.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


I reached a state of confusion today. I thought I had a reasonable grasp of the library debate, even if imperfect. Now, I'm not so sure. An August 1st post on the WISSUP blog resulted in a lengthy set of comments and responses by myself and others. And now I'm sure I don't know what's going on.

I wrote:

OK, Safelibraries, let's suppose you're completely right. Let's imagine US v. ALA says what you believe it to say, and also that the law has the "standards" in it that you allude to. What, exactly, are those standards? In which legal code are they described?

This is not a broad question, but a practical and specific one. A librarian has a book in hand and is deciding whether or not it gets a warning label and whether or not it can be shelved in the Young Adult section. What are the practical criteria the librarian is to use? And in what law code is this set of criteria specfied?

Please be specific.August 2, 2009 5:52 PM

The response from SafeLibraries was:

No supposing is needed. Anyone can read the case for themselves.

As to what librarians should do, I have no idea. I'm not suggesting I do. But if no one does anything, then that effectively nullifies any US Supreme Court case, any law, any community standard, any common sense. Anything goes. August 2, 2009 6:00 PM

OK, I thought, that's one speaker heard from. Doesn't necessarily represent everybody on that side. But a few minutes later, West Bend Citizen Advocate responded to me and another commentator. I've extracted 2 numbered items verbatim:

2. There is no list of books that we are requested for banning. In fact, the lists we gave were for examples, which we tried to share with our librarians. Key word "tried."

5. The request(s) for me (or others) to lay down rules, guidelines, and formats for the library concerning labels, reclassification and the like are absurd and silly. I will not respond to questions such as these. When we met with the librarians, we asked them for their professional expertise in coming up with a plan or idea that would work for them and for the community. We do not discount the educational backgrounds of our librarians and feel that, if presented with a request such as what our community is asking for, they would have the training and support system to be able to comply with those wishes. August 2, 2009 6:17 PM

As we say in blog-speak: WTF?!

It appears there is a request by some West Bend residents to change the way some books are shelved in the library, and to have a warning label put on them. But there is no list of specific books to apply this to , and there are no specific criteria to be used in making these decisions.

Have I missed something? If a librarian is going to choose where to shelve a book or whether or not to label a book according to local community standards, wouldn't that librarian need a detailed description of those standards?

Could we go back to the petition circulated some months ago for guidance? Nope: it's long on words but no better on specificity. It uses terms like obscene, prurient, and patently offensive, which are famously difficult to define. Obscenity law allows the definitions of these terms to vary from community to community precisely because there is no universal understanding. And this means that in each community residents have to establish STANDARDS as to what these terms mean. See my post on obscenity law if you want more detail.

The citizens of West Bend are long overdue for an update from Ms. Maziarka and the WBC4SL as to what, EXACTLY, they want the library to do. This would not be at all "absurd and silly."

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Is Re-Shelving Censorship?

An anonymous commentator recently asked if I thought it amounted to censorship that some libraries have chosen to shelve some books of Young Adult fiction, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in the general section (often mistakenly called the "adult" section), instead of in the Young Adult section. The answer I had to give is as disappointing to me as it is to many others: I don't know. I have no idea of the history or motivations behind those shelving choices, nor about the many other factors that might affect accessibility. A lot of factors go into shelving choices, and I just don't know the details.

The situation in West Bend is a bit different from that, though, since we are all aware of more of the relevant history and proposed changes. In West Bend, library staff have already made shelving choices that are well within the norms of library practice throughout Wisconsin and the U.S. In West Bend, we know that a group of parents have taken it upon themselves to override the shelving decisions made by the librarians.

Those who want the West Bend Library to re-shelve selected materials have given ample evidence that their INTENT is censorious. What unifies the books they've selected is that they talk about sex without adding fire and brimstone or mention homosexuality without adding condemnation. Their rhetoric about these books has been deliberately misleading, making perfectly ridiculous claims about obscenity and pornography. Looking at the facts instead of the hype, it is clear that this debate is about politics rather than pornography or protecting children. In short, their INTENT is to restrict access to materials that disagree with their socio-political position, and that is grossly censorious.

But does it amount to censorship in PRACTICE as well as intent? That's an important question, but difficult to answer. The difficulty is not in what is or is not censorship. The difficulty is in the Maziarka/WBC4SL petition itself, which is long on rhetoric but short on practical details.

How will their proposed re-shelving accomplish anything? Are there turnstiles or other barriers that prevent teens and youngsters from entering the general sections of the library stacks? Will there be signs or librarians or other adults intimidating or discouraging minors from entering the general stacks? Can a teen or child go to the general shelves, take a book, and sit in the library and read it? Are there going to be age-appropriateness monitors trolling the aisles looking for minors with books too grown up for them? Will minors be allowed to check out books from the general section? How will that be controlled? Will scanning library cards access a database that keeps track of who turns 18 when? Will minors using the library catalog be able to find the re-shelved books, or will they be restricted to a special catalog that pretends those books don't exist? The answers to these and other questions are crucial to understanding the re-shelving proposal.

Assuming you don't implement any of these controls, it isn't clear to me that just re-shelving (and only re-shelving) amounts to censorship in practice, even though the intent clearly is censorious. I'd be interested in hearing arguments about that, since I just don't know. To my way of thinking, this is simple and pragmatic rather than legalistic: if all you do is re-shelve, and you don't put any of these other controls in place, you've accomplished absolutely nothing. You will have allowed a group of political activists to waste the time and energy of library staff in reclassifying, re-cataloging and re-shelving books, but children will still be able to find those books in the catalog and on the shelves, read them in the library, and check them out.

On the other hand, if you implement some or all of the controls I've mentioned here, then you've clearly crossed the line into censorship in practice: you're controlling the flow of information based on the political alignment contained in that information. You will also have ruined the library, having pulled the rug out from under the principle of open access that makes the institution an important part of American life.

This doesn't have to be so complicated. There's an easy way out. There's a simple solution in which there is no censorship and nobody's time is wasted in frivolous political pursuits: let the librarians do their job and let individual parents make decisions about their own children's use of library materials.