Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Parents as a Trojan Horse for Censorship

In communities across America, we're witnessing a widening censorship epidemic in the public schools. the new "activists" leading the charge seem intent on removing or restricting everything from books like My Friend Flicka and Of Mice and Men, to educational films, to sex education curricula.

The mostly conservative political groups funding and guiding many of these challenges are trying to convince the public that they are motivated solely by parental concern about "values" and what's being taught in our classrooms. In fact, reality tells us that this parental concern is more of a "Trojan horse" for the long-term political agenda of Right-wing lobbying groups seeking to control what our children learn.
--Arthur J. Kropp, then president of People For the American Way, writing in War of Words: The Censorship Debate, edited by George Beahm, Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel (1993), p. 189.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Will The Leesburg Censors Now Show Common Sense?

Today's provides more detail on the library compromise in Leesburg, Florida (click here).

The situation is impressively similar to that of West Bend, and there can be little doubt that the censors in both communities are drawing on common resources.

The DailyCommerical reports: "More than 80 parents and residents wearing read shirts swamped the meeting to ask commissioners to remove only those books whose teenage characters engage in drug use, criminal acts and sexual situations."

Maybe that's just a journalists way of summarizing the speeches as the town hall meeting. But it is interesting that all of those are categories of speech protected by the First Amendment. It seems nobody even bothered with the usual censors' lies about obscenity and harm to minors. The censors just want to reduce the entire Young Adult collection to Dr. Seuss.

The commissioners voted to have the library split the Young Adult section into two separate sections, Young Adult and High School, and NOT to apply "Mature Audience" stickers to any books. Although the challengers are being too thick-witted to realize it, this is as much as the library can do. "Categorizing a book based on its content, rather than just the genre and intended reading audience, is not a common library practice and could plunge the city into a legal battle, said Barbara Morse, director of the Leesburg Library." And "city Attorney Fred Morrison said identifying a book on its intended reading audience rather than judging a book by its contents could protect the city legally."

A law suit, with the ACLU's help, is nearly guaranteed, if the library accedes to the challengers' demands for labeling and/or removal based on content that is protected speech.

I guess the ball is now in the censors' court. If they have any sense at all, they'll accept the compromise voted in last night. Their reported rhetoric indicates both that they lack that logical ability and that they are being egged on by individuals and groups who are quite willing to give them misleading legal advice. They're not that likely to sue the city themselves, just because such a case would be an obvious loser and no attorney is going to take it on (unless the censors have the cash up front). They'll just have to continue their political agitation, until they sooner or later harangue the city into crossing the line into censorship. Then a judge can finally put a stop to this idiocy.

Leesburg Goes from Bad to Worse

An article in the September 28th edition of the Orlando Sentinel (click here) illustrates all too clearly why even small challenges to library books must be taken seriously and must be resisted vigorously.

The challenge to two books that started earlier this year in Leesburg, Florida, has now grown to a list of 40 books, according to the Sentinel.

I hope the Leesburg library has learned a lesson, and that other libraries learn from this mistake. You see, a big part of the problem is that the library tried to make a compromise, and that demonstrated nothing but weakness to the book challengers. The library gave an inch, and the challengers took a mile.

The compromise offered by the library was huge. They offered to split the Young Adult section in two, separating materials for older teens into a High School category along reading level and age lines. This is a huge undertaking, requiring library staff to review all Young Adult holdings, some 4,000 volumes in the Lessburg situation. This has been attempted by some libraries, usually quite small, in response to public pressures, and with dubious results.

It is also the maximum concession that book challengers can reasonably expect. This provides a VERY narrow ethical channel through which at least some of the interests of both the library and the challengers can be met, without crossing the line into censorship. The challengers would get books age-graded for older teens out of the Young Adult section, which would then serve the needs of younger teens. The library would be able to operate within professional and legal guidelines by dividing their collection by age-appropriateness rather than trying to judge ideas or how they are expressed.

Not good enough for the Leesburg book challengers, who, apparently, want to separate books along moral lines. The Sentinel quotes one challenger as saying, "If they move all the books, the indecent ones are still in with the decent ones and that's not accomplishing anything." That sounds like a perfect epitaph for the tombstone of the First Amendment.

And let this be a lesson to those who would compromise Free Speech with the would-be censors anywhere: show no weakness!

There was supposed to be a public meeting about this on Monday, and I look forward to reading more.

Stephen King on Censorship

. . . my advice to kids would be: "Whatever it is that your parents and teachers don't want you to read is probably the thing that you need the most to find out." So I would find out what's been censored, what's been pulled from the shelves of your school library, and I would run to the nearest public library or to a bookstore and pick it up, whether it's Cujo, Lord of the Flies, or Lady Chatterley's Lover. Go get it and find out what they don't want you to know because that's what you need to know.
--Author Stephen King, in a videotaped interview, quoted here from War of Words: The Censorship Debate, edited by George Beahm, Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel (1993), p. 31.

Monday, September 28, 2009

"Banned Books Week: Still Needed in the U.S."

See an article by Joan Bertin, Excecutive Director of National Coalition Against Censorship, at the Huffington Post (Click Here).

She mentions the attempted censorship in West Bend, and points out that:
This year already, challenges have been reported from Montana to Indiana to Texas, in high schools and libraries, and from classics like Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, to newer books like Brent Hartinger's The Geography Club and Chris Crutcher's Chinese Handcuffs.
She concludes with:
Nor should we expect this situation to change. It is a measure of the health of our democracy that people feel free to protest. But because the fight over books will continue, so must the battle against censorship. Banned Books Week offers everyone an opportunity to join the effort to save the books -- all of them.

Libraries, the First Amendment and Cyberspace

Libraries, the First Amendment and Cyberspace: What you Need to Know, by Robert Peck. Chicago: ALA (2000).

I've taken the unusual step of buying a copy of this one, rather than just reading it in the library. At just about 200 pages, and written in plain English with little to no legalese, this is an excellent and accessible overview of Free Speech laws as they apply to libraries. Every anti-censor should read this!

Peck is a professor of Constitutional law with considerable specialization in Free Speech, media, and libraries. Also an accomplished author, Peck is able to explain legal principles in ordinary language that makes things clear to the layperson. He builds this book on court decisions, but keeps the quotations of those decisions short and to the point, again with a minimum of legalistic jargon. Those who resist censorship will find uplifting confirmation throughout the book. Conversely, a would-be censor who does not feel deeply chastened after reading this simply didn't pay attention.

One of the the valuable things I got out of this book was a deeper appreciation of how well thought out the professional ethics of Librarianship really are.  Would-be censors portray the American Library Association and many librarians as leftist ideologues, and giants who try to strong arm local libraries into conforming to that ideology. This book makes clear the plain fact that the anti-censorship stance of most libraries and most librarians is not a question of ideology, but is firmly founded in law.

It is not just librarians and the ALA, but the Constitution and Supreme Court interpretations of that Constitution, that require libraries to provide equal access to information without discriminating on the basis of point of view. The law does not just allow, but actually requires, that librarians scrupulously avoid infringing on protected speech, which is mostly anything and everything other than works that meet the legal definitions of obscenity and/or child pornography. Few, if any, of the library materials most commonly challenged come anywhere close to meeting those legal definitions, and are clearly protected by the First Amendment.

Bowing to public pressure to suppress protected expression is not something the law or the ethics of the profession can countenance, whether that pressure comes from a minority or even from a majority. The law understands that Free Speech means that some people are going to be offended by how other people express themselves, and does not permit such offense to be the basis for limiting or controlling that expression.

The book is available at the West Bend Library (but not the Leesburg FL public library).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Banning Offensive Material?

“Our constitutional commitment to free speech, however, does not permit such subjective and ad hoc decisions.  It establishes the public library as one of the places where majority sentiment or majority vote about offensiveness is irrelevant.  A library attempts to serve all members and all interests in a community.  Except in the narrow category of sexual obscenity, discussed in chapter 3, the law does not recognize a First Amendment exception based on subjective degrees of offensiveness.  As the Supreme Court has stated, ‘It is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.’[1]  It has further added offensiveness is ‘classically not [a] justification validating the suppression  of expression protected by the First Amendment.  At least where obscenity is not involved, we have consistently held that the fact that protected speech may be offensive to some does not justify its suppression.’   Although it would be much more pleasant if people spoke and wrote with civility and avoided noxious language and ideas, it remains ‘a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, [even though], not always with perfect good taste.’ [3]”
--Constitutional law professor Robert S. Peck, in Libraries, The First Amendment, and Cyberspace: What You Need to Know.  The cases Peck cites are [1] Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576; [2] Carey v. Population Services International,  431 U.S. 678; and [3] Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252.

Don't Let This Happen . . .

Friday, September 25, 2009

Neither SafeLibraries Nor Mitchell Muncy have a Clue!

In anticipation of Banned Books Week, the SafeLibraries blog repeats an anti-ALA diatribe by columnist Mitchell Muncy.  It is obvious that neither SafeLibraries nor Mr. Muncy have the slightest clue what censorship is.

To be brief, consider Muncy's statement:
In the common-law tradition, censorship refers specifically to the government's prior restraint on publication. None of the sponsors claim this has happened; the acts they have in mind are perpetrated by private citizens. Yet the cases on the map almost all involve ordinary people lodging complaints with school and library authorities. Before Banned Books Week began in 1982, such behavior was known as petitioning the government for a redress of grievances.
As I've pointed out before, this is an artificial definition of censorship or banning.  By Muncy's ridiculous abuse of logic, it isn't censorship if a citizen goes into a public library and rips pages he or she doesn't like out of books.  He claims it isn't censorship if a library (government employees) give in to public pressure and remove a book. By Muncy's definition, burning books isn't censorship, because it isn't "prior restraint."

That's stupid.

The shell game Muncy plays with definitions of terms reaches it's peak when he characterizes attempts at censorship this way:
What inflames the ALA, in other words, are attempts by parents to guide their children's education.
Would that it were so!  If all that was going on in West Bend or elsewhere was parents trying to guide their OWN children's education, there'd be no debate.   The problem is that some people are trying to control what OTHER people can read.  And yes, that's Censorship, even if some people just can't face the plain facts.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Father of Ignorance

"Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.  Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.  They need us to be brave enough to give them great books so they can learn how to grow up into the men and women we want them to be."  
--Laurie Halse Anderson, in a comment about censorship, included in the Platinum Edition (2006) of her novel Speak.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Some Pro and Con

Censorship, edited by Julia Bauder. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press (2007).

This is a collection of essays by different writers, some experts, some merely opinionated, on different aspects of modern censorship, including offensive speech, schools, public libraries, internet filters, national security, etc. The editor has paired the various essays into pro and con sides of distinct issues.

Four of these essays are particularly relevant to the West Bend library censorship debate, beginning with a discussion of internet filters in libraries. Daniel Bromberg's Libraries Should Not Use Internet Filters to Block Pornography is an abridged version of the Online Policy Group's Amici Curiae brief in the Supreme Court US v. ALA decision. Click here to see a copy of the entire brief from the OPG website. Bromberg's main point is that internet filters are produced by private corporations and are designed to please their primary customers, who are parents of young children. As such, filters are not designed to meet the constitutional distinctions between protected and unprotected speech. The result is a "prior restraint" of speech, possibly acceptable in a private home, but not in a public library.

The opposing position is provided by ultra-con Phyllis Schlafly in an essay titled Internet Pornography Should Be Restricted. Click here to see a copy of this article, originally titled Supreme Court Sides with Pornographers Again, on the Eagle Forum website. Schlafly's essay doesn't address the theory or practicalities of censorship, but rails against the Supreme Court for twice overturning the attempts by Congress to restrict internet pornography, the Communications Decency Act(CDA) and the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). She calls on congress to "remove jurisdiction from federal courts over pornography," by means of some unspecified constitutional authority known only to her.

Turning to school libraries, Chris Crutcher, an author of sometimes challenged young adult novels, makes a moving argument that young people need to have a window on the real-life issues they must face. Titled School Libraries Should Not Restrict Access to Any Books within this volume, the original To the Students of the Limestone School District can be found on Crutcher's website (scroll down to the title).

The opposing view, School Libraries Should Restrict Students' Access to Controversial Books, is written by journalist Mike Masterson. He makes an emotional claim that parents should have an absolute right to control what their children read, and that library policies enforcing that parental authority are not censorship. This piece was originally published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, but registration and a fee are needed to access their archives. A free copy can be found by clicking here (the original title was Laurie's Noble Crusade).

Monday, September 21, 2009

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

A post today on the blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) calls attention to a challenge against Laurie Halse Anderson's moving and award-winning young-adult novel, Speak. The book deals with the very difficult subject of rape, and is used in high school and middle school classrooms around the US as a focus for the discussion of physical and emotional harassment, the effect of keeping secrets, fitting in to high school cliques, and the like (lesson plans can easily be found on the web).

At least one parent in Temecula, California, objected to the classroom use of the book. Click here to see a copy of the letter by the NCAC and others defending it from that challenge.

Rather than make a logical or legal argument about this, I think it would be best to let the author make her own very moving appeal. The YouTube video below describes the reader reactions received by the author, and it might convince you of the real need for this kind of literature for and among teenagers. Have tissues ready.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Banned Books Books

Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds, Revised Ed. by Dawn B. Sova (2006), New York: Facts On File.

This is not the kind of book one sits and reads, but it is a quite useful reference guide. This volume is part of a series of four. The other three volumes address literature suppressed on the grounds of politics, religion, and sex. The four volumes together document censorship and attempted censorship of some 450 works.

The present volume describes the suppression on social grounds of 115 titles. Most of the volume is made up of short descriptions of each title, including a synopsis of each book's content and a summary of the major censorship attempts against it. A few key references to additional information on each book, or the debate about the book, appear with each synopsis. There is no general description of the theory or legalities of censorship.

Leafing through this volume, one is struck by how utterly ridiculous many challenges are. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land? Hesse's Steppenwolf? Morris's The Naked Ape? Another detail that leaps from the pages is how rarely book challenges succeed.

It turns out that four of the books on the Maziarka List are discussed in this volume, a fifth in one of the companion volumes. It also turns out that I've reviewed each of them here on this blog, although I'm not sure how, since I didn't open Banned Books until well after those reviews. The five are listed below; clicking on the title will bring up the review I've previously written.

Am I Blue. A dust-up in Solon, Iowa, in 2004. Parents objected to the use of the book in a middle school classroom, making the usual claims that it "promotes homosexuality" and "undermines the beliefs and teachings of our faith." The school board agreed to inform parents more thoroughly about controversial books used in the curriculum, but the book was retained.

Annie on my Mind. Sova writes, "The novel has frequently been attacked on the grounds that it promotes, idealizes or encourages homosexuality. Challengers who have not read the book mistakenly charge that it contains explicit sex." The book has been challenged and sometimes removed from a number of school and public libraries, and almost always returned. Infamously, it was burned in Kansas City, and the attempt by the Olathe, Kansas, school board to remove the book was overturned by the US district court.

Baby Be-Bop Of several attempts to suppress this book, the most topical is the one that took place in 1998 and 1999 in the Barron Area School District of Wisconsin. Responding to a parent's challenge, the district put together a review committee, which wound up recommending that the book be retained. As has happened in so many other cases, the board overrode the committee's recommendation, and removed Baby Be-Bop and several other books from the school library. Some parents sued, with the help of the ACLU. As has also happened in many cases, it became apparent during the court proceedings that censorship wasn't going to be permitted, and the board wisely chose to settle the case before the court made a final decision. Baby Be-Bop and the other books were returned to the high school library.

Heather Has Two Mommies A frequently challenged book, it has been removed, stolen, re-shelved, restricted, and subjected to any number of indignities at many libraries throughout the U.S. One of the more common complaints is that its "message is that homosexuality is okay." It has often, but not always, wound up back in its original library location. In Georgia, in 1993, one state legislator actually grumbled about amending the state constitution to prevent tax dollars being spent on books that "promote homosexuality, pedophilia or sado-masochism," but took no action. The controversy faded quietly away.

It's Perfectly Normal is listed in the companion volume, Literature Suppressed on Sexual Grounds.   The author of this volume describes at least two challenges to It's Perfectly Normal that resulted in some access restrictions, but no permanent removal.  The description of 1999 events surrounding the Placer County (California) public library reads like a play book for recent debate in West Bend, WI:
“The books that are sexually explicit or contain sexual education content should be placed behind the counter with only full, unrestricted access to adults. We must uphold community standards, and make the libraries safe once again for children.”

After the library board voted on June 29, 1999, not to restrict access to materials that certain members of the community viewed as sexually explicit or profane, the Auburn Journal reported that more than 50 people representing a newly formed group called Citizens for Safe Libraries assembled to protest on the library lawn. They demanded that the Placer County Library Board rescind the decision and threatened to call upon the Placer County Board of Supervisors to reverse the ruling of the library board. Their attempts were unsuccessful.
A lot of confusion and acrimony in West Bend could have been prevented, if Maziarka and the WBC4SL had just bothered to do some homework before starting this mess.

Friday, September 18, 2009

National Hogwash Week?

SafeLibraries, quoting others who deny that censorship takes place in modern-day America, is fond of referring to Banned Books Week as "National Hogwash Week." He/they claim in various blog posts (e.g., click here) that "no book has been banned in the USA for many decades."

I hope most readers have noticed how horribly twisted this claim is.

To be sure, the title Banned Books Week is meant to be used symbolically. It reminds us of a time, happily behind us, when large-scale book bans were a common part of American life. It reminds us that Free Speech was initially hard won, and has been under constant threat ever since. It reminds us that attempts at censorship, in many different forms, are still common today. Above all, it reminds us of the need for vigilance.

The symbolic meaning of Banned Books Week is, therefore, valid, both in terms of history and current events. But let's be clear: the concrete, non-symbolic, meaning of banned books is also frighteningly real.

Those who deny that book-banning still takes place are using an artificially expansive definition of the concept. They're insisting that a book is only banned if its prohibition is complete and official. There is, of course, no such presumption in the term. To ban merely means to prohibit. A book, then, can be banned in Wisconsin, just in West Bend, or even banned just in the West Bend Community Memorial library. This more local meaning of to ban has always been understood, as attested by the survival of phrases like "Banned in Boston."

Another argument used by those who would deny that banning still takes place is that the books are available in many places, including on the web, so removing a title from one library doesn't amount to banning. This is really just another version of the artificially expanded definition of the term, since to remove a title is to prohibit it, and all that ban really means is prohibit. This common-sense analysis has often been followed by the courts. For example, in the decision known as Case v. Unified School District No. 233, the US District Court in Kansas held that the availability of Annie on my Mind outside the library did not alter the infringement upon the First Amendment that the school board committed by removing it. The court stated: "The availability of Annie on My Mind from other sources does not cure defendants' improper motivation for removing the book. 'Restraint on expression may not generally be justified by the fact that there may be other times, places, or circumstances available for such expression.'"

Of course, the ban deniers are engaging in a completely circular argument on this point. If, as they say, a book is so available elsewhere that removing it from a library isn't a ban, then it is also true that removing it in the first place is a pointless waste of time, accomplishing nothing. Circular reasoning seems basic to their entire position. At some level, they know that banning books is evil, otherwise they wouldn't deny that banning is what they're doing. But the cognitive dissonance created by wanting both to ban books and to be a person who eschews evil cannot be resolved in the real world. Thus their fantasy that removing books from libraries, or restricting access to them, isn't banning. Denial can be such a useful neurosis.

Just look at the map of recent book challenges documented by the American Library Association (Click Here to see the whole, current map).

The map bristles with markers, mostly indicating challenges in school and public libraries. The ban deniers claim these incidents don't amount to banning because most of the attempts were unsuccessful, and this somehow makes Banned Books Week invalid and obsolete. Circular logic again: their claim is that these bans aren't real bans because the attempted ban was fought and prevented or reversed. Of course, to make even that circular point they have to ignore the documented cases in which books were actually removed from shelves.

We must remember that what's on the map are only the cases that are documented. It is reasonable to expect that there are other instances of book banning that we have no way to quantify. We expect that a school board here, a public library there, have quietly removed one or another book either to enforce their personal agenda or just to avoid a controversy. Such actions are real book bans, even if they don't receive national attention.

They only hogwash is in claiming that Banned Books Week is hogwash. Book banning happens in these United States in this 21st century, and is only one aspect of the many varieties of Censorship we still have to contend with. It's sad that we still NEED Banned Books Week, but great that we still HAVE Banned Books Week.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Annie on my Mind (2)

I was planning on doing a book review of Nancy Garden's Annie on my Mind, which is on the Maziarka List. But then I realized that censorship of this particular book had already been litigated. It made for interesting reading.

Annie on my Mind is a story about two 17-year-old women from different backgrounds, who meet by chance and fall in love. The well-kept secret of their romance is eventually exposed, leading to painful social consequences for the young couple, and for an older lesbian couple who wind up caught in the crossfire. The book was first published in 1982 and hasn't gone out of print since. The book became famous (or infamous) in the 1990s, as conservative opposition to its gay-affirming theme grew, leading to a public book-burning in Kansas City (sound familiar?). The American Library Association ranks it as number 44 on its list of 100 most frequently challenged books: 1990–1999. A summary of the book and the surrounding controversy can be found on Wikipedia.

In 1994, in part to avoid being drawn in to the public controversy in that state, the school board of the Olathe school district (A.K.A. Unified School District No. 233), in Johnson County, Kansas, removed the book from the school library. A group of students and parents, with the help of the ACLU, sued the school district to force the return of the book. The school board did not give in easily, and vigorously defended their presumed right to exclude the book, running up legal bills on both sides. The parents and students prevailed, and the school board was forced to return the book to the library shelves and pay the plaintiff's legal bills as well as their own.

The suit was decided in 1995, in the US District Court in Kansas, and is known in those records as Case v. Unified School District No. 233, ("Case" being the surname of the primary plaintiffs). In their adjudication, the district court relied heavily on the Supreme Court decision known as Board of Education v. Pico (see my post on that case), a case that had clarified limits on the power of a school board to remove books from the school library. One of the findings of the district court is highly relevant to West Bend book challenge, since Maziarka's allegation is that the book is pornographic or sexually explicit. The court, however, found that:
The book contains no vulgarity, offensive language, or explicit sexual content.
The court did not accept the school board's claim that the book was "educationally unsuitable." The board's own words and actions weighed heavily against them, in part because they had not followed their own established procedures for reconsidering library materials, and overrode the advice of the professional staff of their own library (sound familiar?). This was a striking parallel with the Board v. Pico case, and was taken as evidence that the board's motivations in removing the book were not as they claimed.
Accordingly, the court concludes that defendants removed Annie on My Mind because they disagreed with ideas expressed in the book and that this factor was the substantial motivation in their removal decision. Through their removal of the book, defendants intended to deny students in the Olathe School District access to those ideas. Defendants unconstitutionally sought to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” [the quote inside the quote is from Board v. Pico]
The court's closing remarks were strident:
the court concludes that defendants' removal of Annie on My Mind from the Olathe School District libraries violated plaintiffs' constitutional rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and under the Constitution of the State of Kansas, Bill of Rights, § 11. . . . The court orders defendants to return the copies of Annie on My Mind to the libraries in the Olathe School District where they were located prior to the removal. . . . The court further orders that the books be made available according to the usual terms and conditions prescribed for the use of library materials in the District. . . . Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1988, plaintiffs are entitled to an award of attorneys fees, costs, and expenses associated with the prosecution of this case.
[The indented quotes all come from the court's decision. It can be difficult to locate copies of District Court documents, and the best source is probably Westlaw (online), if your library provides access. The full citation, for the legal-minded, is D.Kan.,1995., Case v. Unified School Dist. No. 233, 908 F.Supp. 864. ]

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Annie on my Mind (1)

"Burned! I didn't think people burned books any more. Only Nazis burn books…."

"Of course adults want to protect [young people] from bad things! My partner and I helped bring up a pair of teens and we wanted to protect them from everything hurtful in the world; it's a natural impulse for most adults. But it's also important to prepare teens for the world they'll meet as adults, and to help them understand it and form their own reactions to it. One can't do that by keeping the world from them. Far better for them to encounter difficult subjects when they still have loving adults—like their parents and teachers and librarians—to talk to than to keep them so sheltered that they know nothing of the world until they're thrust into it as independent kids in their 20s."

--Nancy Garden, author of Annie on my Mind, on learning that her book had been burned in Kansas City. The book is on the Maziarka List. The quotes are from an interview in the School Library Journal, 1 June 2003. CLICK HERE to see the article online.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On the Front Page

“I commend the West Bend Community Memorial Library Board of Trustees, administration, and staff for their support of the principle of intellectual freedom, and I share the nominator’s awe of their commitment to defend people’s right to read materials of their choosing without arbitrary barriers that prohibit access to information,”
--Michael Zimmer, in a front page article in this morning's Washington County Daily News.

Banned Books Week events in Madison

On the Sept. 14th post on the blog of the Madison chapter of the ACLU, there is a short audio clip praising the West Bend librarians, from an interview on WORT radio. And don't forget the Banned Book Week activities announced on their Sept. 10th post. These include:

ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation Banned Books Week Kick-off and Fundraiser
Tuesday, September 15, 7:00—8:30 p.m.

Banned Books Week Panel, moderated by Jim Fleming, Wisconsin Public Radio host
Thursday, October 1, 6:00—7:30 p.m.

Banned Books Talk presented by ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation, Woodland Pattern Book Center, and Wisconsin Center for the Book
Wednesday, October 14, 7:00 – 8:30 p.m.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Poison of Mindless Orthodoxy

An interesting, if somewhat obscure, court case I recently read about is called Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea. The case was decided in 1978 in the US District Court in Massachusetts, so it's not a high-level precedent. Nevertheless, it does illustrate how little the West Bend censors have to stand on.

In Chelsea, Massachusetts, the school board removed a book of poetry from the school library. Students and parents sued. The court ordered the book put back in the library. The whole argument was about one poem in the book, which used language I'd rather not repeat here (CLICK HERE if you choose to read it anyway, it's in the footnotes to the page that will appear).

Two things are striking about this case. One is that the court acknowledged that the language of the poem was offensive (which is not the same thing as obscene). The other is that the court considered the motivations of the school board and found them to be reasonable: their concern with offensive language was genuine, and was not being used to cover up a political agenda. In spite of these findings, the court refused to find the poem obscene, declaring that both the poem and the book that contained it had serious value. The court determined that the school board acted improperly by removing an entire book based on one poem, and by failing to follow their own procedures for reconsideration of materials. The court held that the board violated the students' right to access the marketplace of ideas.

The legal framework surrounding a school library is quite different from that of a public library. Many more restrictions on Free Speech are allowed in the school setting, and courts actively avoid interfering in the authority of school boards to run their own districts. Yet a poem of undeniably racy language could not be censored, even when language really was the concern.
In the West Bend dispute, a higher standard for protecting Free Speech would apply, since the setting is a public library rather than a school library. Also, the censors of West Bend have more than demonstrated that their motivation is to push a particular religious and political agenda, based in homophobia. In this light, the WBC4SL and CCLU don't stand a legal chance.

The closing remarks in the court's decision are uplifting:
The student who discovers the magic of the library is on the way to a life-long experience of self-education and enrichment. The student learns that a library is a place to test or expand upon ideas presented to him, in or out of the classroom. The most effective antidote to the poison of mindless orthodoxy is ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies. There is no danger from such exposure. The danger is mind control.
---US District Court (Massachusetts) 454 F. Supp. 703 (1978)

A well-documented analysis of the case can be read in the New England Law Review 14(2), pp. 288-316. A shorter and less lawyerly discussion can be found in Herbert Foerstel's Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in School and Public Libraries (included among the books I recommend on the right-hand side of my blog homepage). See also the American Library Association's webpage on notable First Amendment court cases.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ethics Code?

In aFriday post on the WISSUP blog, Maziarka presents a section of West Bend government ethics code, with highlights, under a title referring to library director Tyree's anticipated appearance at an ACLU fundraiser in Madison. The implication seems to be that Tyree is somehow violating the ethics code, although she doesn't come right out and say that.

Of course, director Tyree's appearance is in full compliance with the ethics code Maziarka highlights. Here, as with the Free Speech issues surrounding her blatant attempts at censorship, Maziarka demonstrates a failure to grasp the basic structures and meanings of anything legal. She highlights the phrase "independent, impartial" as if it implied preferrential treatment for her. She highlights "best interests of the City" as if that meant the best interests of Maziarka. She highlights "should be above reproach," when the only real reproach comes from her, deeply habituated as she is to harassing library staff and government officials.

In her public statements regarding the West Bend library, Maziarka exemplifies the textbook symptoms of an anti-social personality, unconcerned with the law or the rights of others. It is typical of strong neuroses that the sufferer resists rising OUT of the neurosis by trying to drag the rest of the world IN to the neurosis. This attempt to bend public perception to her personal world-view is possible only within West Bend. Within a small community, the interplay of familiar personalities and alliances both political and personal can make it difficult for individuals to perceive that they are being sucked in to a fantasy.

With regard to the attempted censorship in West Bend, the best thing that can happen is state and national publicity. At those levels, local personalities and alliances simply become less important, and the underlying neurosis becomes plainly visible. In this regard, any publicity beyond West Bend is definitely "the best interest of the City." Maziarka expresses concern that with such publicity "West Bend is on Madison's radar to be mocked and ridiculed." Here again, Maziarka confuses herself with the city of West Bend.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"West Bend is on Madison's radar to be mocked and ridiculed!"

Ms. Maziarka seems to be worried that "West Bend is on Madison's radar to be mocked and ridiculed." This in a WISSUP complaint about an upcoming ACLU fundraiser, at which Michael Tyree and Maria Hanrahan "will share their story of a book challenge this year in West Bend, WI." (Congratulations to them, by the way!)

She's probably exaggerating, but if there is ridicule, WHO is really to blame?

Lets see, there's one group who want the library to turn over literature for a public book-burning, and another who think all gay-affirming books should be hidden from teenagers, or at least "balanced" with scientifically discredited books on dangerous therapies aimed at changing sexual orientation. We've got people claiming that "removing" a book isn't the same thing as banning, and claiming that turning one's personal political agenda into public library policy isn't censorship. Half the town seems to think there are dirty books in the library and are up in arms about it, even though they've never bothered to look at any of them. I guess that shouldn't be surprising, since it turns out that neither Maziarka nor the other members(?) of the WBC4SL nor the CCLU bothered to read any of the books they've so publicly decried, and can't begin to explain what criteria they use to decide which books are objectionable and which aren't. They go around quoting law books and Supreme Court decisions they clearly do not comprehend and don't even know how to evaluate, since they don't understand the most rudimentary structures of the U.S. legal system, and can't be bothered to read even an introductory text on the subject. And then there are Internet Filters, a mantra they chant as if the mere sounds of words will dispel all objectionable materials and objectionable people from the public library, some magic that will enable computers to faultlessly identify all pornography, even though human beings can't agree on the definition of the concept. We've got people who portray the American Library Association, a small, advisory group, as some mighty giant strong-arming control away from local taxpayers, who are presumed to know better than professional librarians how to run a library. And rumbling under the surface, leaking out just once in a while, more seriously deranged idiocy like censoring books on evolution or those witchcraft-provoking Harry Potter novels.

No... there's nothing worthy of ridicule in any of that! (Sarcasm.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Am I Blue?

Am I Blue? edited by Marion Dane Bauer. NY: Harper Collins (1994).

My eighth book review on this blog, and another enjoyable book I never knew existed, and never would have known, except for the advertising provided by Ginny Maziarka's attempted suppression of it. This is a collection of 16 short stories, each quite different from the others, united by the theme of "coming out," of the choices a young man or young woman might have to make, or is unable to make, about revealing his or her own, or someone else's, sexual orientation to others.

When I picked up the book, I assumed the title referred to being sad. But it turns out the title of the book is the title of the opening short story, which is an amusing tale in which every human being who has any degree of homosexual nature turns some shade of blue (which winds up being about a third of the population).

The authors are all notable in Young Adult fiction, some in other areas as well. Each reader, of course, will have her or his own favorites out of the 16 stories. I would like to give honorable mention to Lois Lowry's Holding, about a young man choosing what to reveal about his father's sexual orientation. It is gently uplifting, and likely to bring a tear or two. Jane Yolen's Blood Sisters is a fascinating fantasy about Amazon women in some other world and other time. William Sleator's In the Tunnels is an intense and entrancing look at Vietnamese soldiers living in underground tunnels during the war.

These stories are all age-appropriate for anyone with the cognitive ability to read at the required level, probably starting around the age of 14 for most teens, a little earlier for some. In terms of strong language, there isn't so much as a "damn" in the entire book, but there are a few epithets ("queer", "fairy," etc.) used as examples of the prejudice some must endure. There is a little violence, as In the Tunnels is a war story, and in another story there is a brief description of a schoolyard fight. There are references to sex, sexuality, and sexual orientation, but very little description of any sexual activity. There is one passing reference (not a description) to masturbation and one short scene about "getting to second base."

A quick check of online catalogs shows that libraries around Wisconsin have at least three different bindings of the book, and I didn't try to sort out all the possible duplicate entries. Something over 100 school and public libraries in the state have the book, with many of the public libraries classifying it as Young Adult. Barnes and Noble lists the book's age range as Young Adult, and Young Adult Book Central gives it as 14+.

Putting a warning sticker on this book, re-shelving it in the adult section, calling it obscene, or a danger to minors, is all perfectly ridiculous.

Again, Ginny, or anybody in the WBC4SL: any takers on explaining what the problem is with this book? Please post a comment if you can explain this.

Actually, I may be phrasing that question incorrectly. As I read today's post on the CafeMaria blog, I followed a link to a February post on the WISSUP blog that I thought was quite interesting. Not illuminating, just interesting. Referring to a meeting with library staff, Maziarka wrote:
We explained that our complaint was a general complaint, not an individual book complaint. She did not want to discuss the general concept of homosexual books for youth, but we forged on regardless.
I have to admit I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. I can't imagine how you can remove, re-shelve, or label objectionable books by any means other than evaluating each one on a case-by-case basis.

So maybe I'm asking the wrong question in my challenges to Maziarka on this or other books? I doubt it, but I'll try. Maybe instead of asking what's wrong with Am I Blue, I should just ask what "a general complaint, not an individual book complaint," means.

OK ---- Any takers on that one? PLEASE post.

To Ginny Maziarka: Re Filters

In response to today's post on the WISSUP blog:

My own opinion is that SOME kind of internet filtering is inevitable in West Bend, although we probably wouldn’t agree on the details. Regardless of the details, you’re not helping to get filters implemented. If anything, you’re slowing the process down by injecting mythology into the debate and haranguing the library staff into a position of resistance.

The first thing you need to get clear on is the difference between filters for children and filters for adults. Your anti-sexual focus blinds you to the fact that porn is only one aspect of filters for children, since for them it is at least as important that the filter prevent them from revealing personal information online or from being contacted by possible online predators. Preventing adults from accessing porn is not the same thing as protecting children from online predators.

When it comes to filters for adults, you are not being realistic about what they will accomplish. The CIPA itself requires that adults have the right to unblock the computer they are using on demand, and the library would actually be breaking the law by failing to unblock on demand. Filters, then, will NOT prevent adult patrons from accessing pornography. Even with filters in place, preventing adult access to porn comes down to the library policy. THE WEST BEND LIBRARY ALREADYS HAS THAT POLICY IN PLACE!

The library staff, who have actually studied this matter, raise a quite valid point about patron-owned laptops. Patrons can bring their own laptop to the library and connect to the internet by means of the library’s wireless network. Such computers will NOT be filtered, even if the library is bound by the rules of the CIPA. Here again, IT IS THE LIBRARY POLICY, NOT THE FILTERS, THAT WILL MAKE THE DIFFERENCE.


You are correct in claiming that filters are highly effective in a technical sense, but you overstate their technical accuracy. ALL filters have some degree of under-blocking – allowing porn to pass through – and over-blocking – interfering with access to legally accessible sites. Of these, the over-blocking is the larger problem, and that is one of the reasons the CIPA requires libraries to allow patrons to bypass filters.

Finally, your characterization of the ALA fund for legal challenges to the CIPA is inaccurate. That fund is to pay for the legal costs that were (in the past) expended in the challenge to the CIPA that the ALA lost. It is not about future challenges: the Supreme Court has ruled, there’s nowhere else to appeal to. The ALA is not the problem here, YOU ARE!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


As I tried to explain in yesterday's essay, book challengers with a genuine interest in protecting children from harmfully inappropriate material would be practical about their proposal. Their desire to make a sustainable change in library practice would require them to recognize that their proposal had the potential for infringing on Free Speech. Facing that reality, they would find a way to make their proposal operate within the areas of restrictions on Free Speech that the law permits. Doing that would require getting very specific about the criteria to be used for classifying books, and very specific about the kinds of access controls that would or would not be implemented within the library. Such specificity is the one thing the West Bend debate most desperately needs, and is the one thing it most thoroughly lacks.

I think I see how the book challengers blundered into this mess. Their first mistake was in choosing to turn their personal beliefs into public policy by objecting to books they didn't approve of. In this case, they objected to anything with a gay-affirming theme. This was a gross attempt at censorship, as it sought to alter library contents to suit the challengers' political world-view. Yet it seems never to have occurred to them that they might be creating a Free Speech problem. They just assumed they knew better than professional librarians how to run a library.

And quite professionally, the librarians explained that the challengers' proposal did, in fact, raise a Free Speech issue, and couldn't be implemented without getting the library sued, even if the library wanted to participate, and it didn't. And that's when the challengers made their second, and bigger, mistake. Realizing they had been too honest about the political nature of their motives, they reached for one of the oldest tricks in the censors' toolkit: they decided to lie about their true goal and re-brand it as protecting children from pornography. They just didn't stop to consider the position this would put them in. The initial selection of books they objected to was based on the subject of the books, not their actual content, so they had never bothered to read any of them. As a result, they were immediately caught in a position of ignorance. People started asking the perfectly reasonable question, "what is it about this book you think qualifies as obscene?" and the challengers could not answer.

It was too late to back out gracefully, since they had by this time harassed the library staff near to death and caused a huge community uproar. Wanting to keep their argument alive and yet to avoid appearing as unprepared for the debate as they truly were, they made their third -- and worst -- blunder. They decided to get vague and evasive, hoping in that way to avoid getting caught in a detailed debate with anyone who actually knew anything about the contents of the books, knew anything about standard library practices, or knew anything about the legalities of Free Speech. This doomed them to failure, although many have not yet realized it.

The result of this cascade of one strategic blunder after another is the situation as it stands today. We have innuendos about obscene, pornographic, and/or harmful books in the library, but no list identifying which books fall into those categories (there WAS a list, but it's been demoted to "just examples"). We have a legal-sounding petition against pornography, but still no clear statement as to the criteria that determine why one book is objectionable while another isn't. Their demands change almost daily, but we still don't know whether they want the library "just" to re-shelve and/or label some books (determined we know not how), or if children are to be prohibited from checking books out based on age and book content (determined we know not how). Lots of vagaries, no specifics.

While this mishmash is a rhetorical delight, allowing endless harping and complaining, it can never bring about change in library practice. In practical terms, the entire debate must be boiled down to one, simple, procedural issue. A librarian will have a book in hand and will have to decide whether it goes in the Young Adult section or the General section, whether it gets a warning label or doesn't. If the challengers want to change the way the librarians perform this task, they're going to have to get specific about the criteria to be used in making those decisions.

Such specificity is required by common sense and the practicality of getting a job done, but not only by that. Specificity is also required by law. This is so because the principle of Free Speech is, quite intentionally, construed broadly in both U.S. custom and law. The burden is on the book challengers to demonstrate that they are operating within the limits on Free Speech that the law permits. That demonstration can only be achieved by getting specific, both about the criteria used for classifying books and about the access controls they want the library to put in place.

"But we just want to protect children," the book challengers say. Very well. Then the criteria they propose for distinguishing Young Adult books from General books will reflect that goal. We will be able to go down the list of criteria and see how each point eliminates something that presents a danger to a child, and doesn't just support or undermine one or another political position. They'll spell out the details of access controls within the library so we can see how they protect children from danger without unduly infringing on access to ideas and information. "We're just eliminating obscene material, which isn't protected speech anyway," the book challengers say. Fine again. All they have to do is come up with a list of criteria that identifies books that meet the legal definition of obscenity, without infringing upon books with serious value.

Book challengers with legitimate motives would welcome debate and scrutiny. If they were genuinely concerned with the well-being of children, they would want to make sure their criteria were legal, and therefore sustainable. They'd want to ensure that their criteria led to protecting children in practice, not just in theory. Legitimate book challengers recognize that it is the civic duty of citizens to question and debate anything that gives the appearance of infringing on Free Speech, and welcome that debate as an opportunity to improve the focus and effectiveness of the criteria they propose.

Conversely, when book challengers resist that legitimate scrutiny and debate, you know they are engaging in some kind of fraud. Righteous indignation at being accused of censorship reveals only that they have failed to think at all about Free Speech issues. Refusing to state clear decision criteria reveals only that their motives are not what they claim them to be. Evasiveness about check-out rules and in-library book use show that their true intent is not "just" re-shelving, but also the control of access to information and ideas.

The West Bend book challengers are of the evasive and indignant variety, leaving the public no choice but to recognize them as the censors they truly want to be. The censors know their bigoted and political motives will be revealed the second they are forced to get specific about decision criteria, so they avoid the specificity required both by pragmatism and the law. They know that "just" re-shelving sounds less frightening than access control, so they remain vague about the access controls they really want. And if their motives are bigotry and politics and access control, there can be no word for their proposal other than CENSORSHIP, plain and simple.

The West Bend Censors are not merely censors of the ordinary kind. They are the worst kind of censors: they are arbitrary censors. Think about it. They want to inflict their bigotry, their political agenda, their access controls on a public library, yet they offer no principles, no guidelines, no standards upon which to decide what to censor or not to censor. What they want is totally arbitrary, a right to dictate to all and answer to none. That is the lowest of the low.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Proof-Texting the Law?

The West Bend censorship debate includes many completely ridiculous interpretations of US law regarding pornography, obscenity, Free Speech, and censorship. While one needs a law degree (which I don't have) to fully understand the nuances -- and this is a very nuanced field of study -- even a modest introduction to the basics of the US legal system goes a long way to clearing up many of the misconceptions, both accidental and deliberate. I want briefly to describe one particular type of legal analysis that seems to be causing the most egregious abuses.

Proof-texting, at least in its negative sense, is something many of us have encountered in the context of some (definitely not all) Christian interpretations of biblical scripture. In this context, proof-texting refers to "fishing" for a quote to support a particular idea or position for something. Note that the conclusion has already been made, and the only objective of this quote-fishing is justify a foregone conclusion. Proof-texting requires a number of assumptions about the nature of scripture. It assumes that the Bible is a single work by a single author, and expounding a unified theme, rather than being a collection of different essays by different authors written centuries apart, each addressing the different circumstances of it's own place and time. It assumes that every sentence is of cosmic importance, allowing it to stand alone and out of context as a pronouncement on general principles. It assumes that the Bible is so perfect that the result is valid even if the research method is not.

Whether or not any of that is a valid way to interpret the Bible is irrelevant to the question at hand. There is no doubt, however, when we're talking about secular law in modern day America: that kind of abusive logic does NOT work.

Laws are not perfect. We know they are written by flawed human beings using flawed human language. We know that many different authors are involved, separated sometimes by centuries. We know that different sections of law were designed to address different issues, and that some laws are intended to state broad principles while others focus narrowly on specific circumstances. We understand that broader laws often conflict with one another, and so we have courts whose job it is to clarify which parts of the law have precedence over another, and under which circumstances, and what the broad principles mean when they're not just theories but are applied to specific situations.


To me, this is the most frustrating aspect of the debate. While Dan/SafeLibraries provides a number of extreme examples of proof-texting the law, and recent posts on his blog are what prompted this essay, the habit is not unique to him. Ginny Maziarka reading Wisconsin statutes she clearly didn't understand during her WBKV radio interview is another example. But this proof-texting habit goes far beyond West Bend. It's been a pervasive feature of censorship debates across the US over the last 20 years.

The result is a legal muddle. Somebody reads a court decision about Internet filters and quite arbitrarily extends its meaning to books on a library shelf. Somebody reads a decision that uses a phrase like "inappropriate for minors," or "pervasively vulgar," and doesn't stop to think about the meaning the original author of the decision gave to that phrase, and thus profoundly changes that meaning. Somebody reads a ruling about removing books from a school library, and thinks (hopes?) that it says something (or anything at all) about putting a warning label on books in a public library. Somebody reads about one exception to the principle of Free Speech and takes it as a general repudiation of the First Amendment.

This is proof-texting at its worst. It's fishing for isolated quotes in order to support a foregone conclusion, instead of asking what the law itself actually says. It's taking things out of context and applying them arbitrarily to different circumstances. It's ignoring the specialized meanings of words and phrases in their original context and assuming that the more general and ordinary meanings apply everywhere. It's taking a phrase from one law and connecting it to a phrase in another law, in ways the original writers never intended or even imagined.

I would not presume to speculate as to the religious background of one or another would-be censor. But beyond certain kinds of Biblical interpretation, I can't think of any field of study that teaches this research method. They've certainly never seen it in any legal analysis written by a competent expert.

There's really no excuse for this. It isn't a question of intelligence or even of specialized training. It's a question of a willingness to face simple facts. If you're challenging a book, especially after library staff have turned your challenge down, you have to face the reality that the legalities of Free Speech have something to say about the issue. You might not agree with the interpretations given in your particular case, and you can argue that point within the context of applicable law, but you can't just pretend the First Amendment doesn't exist. I am continually amazed at the self-delusional ability of would-be censors everywhere to deny that their goal has anything to do with Free Speech.

And if you're going to pursue your challenge over the long term, is it not incumbent upon you to educate yourself about the legal framework of your own issue? Wouldn't that just be prudent and practical? I'm not saying you should become a lawyer. I'm just saying learn a little bit about what the law really says instead of just what you wish it said, learn a little about the give and take of the principles and issues that apply. This is especially easy to do in the area of Free Speech, since there is a wealth of material explaining the principles in plain English and exploring how the courts have applied those principles to example cases.

If all you want to do is win an argument in the blogosphere, then I guess you can make up whatever ridiculous crap you want and hope nobody notices (here I refer especially to SafeLibraries, but not to him alone). But changing particular practices in a particular library isn't just about winning an argument, it's about pragmatic change in the real world. That means dealing with the legal framework as it really exists, not the version you made up to sound convincing in a blog post. Your opponents understand this, and you have no chance of accomplishing anything if you don't take that into account. If you limit your use of the law to fishing for out-of-context quotes, if all you're willing to do is go proof-texting, you're just setting yourself up to fail.

Let's get a little more specific. Free Speech implies free and equal access to information and ideas. The law allows some exceptions to be made where minors are concerned, but free access to ideas is NOT a right limited to adults. One of the biggest exceptions to Free Speech is in the area of obscenity, but nothing in the law enables you to arbitrarily label anything you don't like as obscene. The fact is that where literature is concerned, it is extremely difficult for most works to meet the legal definition of obscene, and NONE of the materials argued about in West Bend come even close.

Protecting children is a noble and laudable goal, but it isn't magic, and it doesn't automatically trump any and all Free Speech concerns. Just shouting, "but we're protecting children," doesn't make trampling the First Amendment OK, even if it's true -- and that's doubtful in most censorship cases. Yes, the Supreme Court has acknowledged a compelling state interest in protecting children from some pornographic and otherwise harmful materials, but that doesn't mean YOU get to decide what's pornographic or harmful, or that you can define those terms to suit your personal world-view.

None of these decisions or laws come anywhere close to implying that Ginny Maziarka and/or The WBC4SL get to decide which books to put a warning label on, or that Dan/SafeLibraries gets to decide where to shelve them.

ABOVE ALL, the law requires specificity. If you're willing to be practical about real-world goals, there MIGHT be a path through the maze of First Amendment concerns to a sustainable compromise. But accomplishing that will require specific criteria for deciding how to classify books and other materials, and unambiguous direction as to what the library is to do and is not to do. The devil is in the details. More on that tomorrow.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Eating My Words: Or How the Radicals Radicalize Me

I don't "eat my own words," very often, but I'm going to do just that here and now. The process of examining the West Bend library debate has significantly changed my thinking in one particular area, and it's only fair to admit it. I didn't think that was likely when I started this, but I've definitely learned something.

I have tried in my posts on this blog to draw a distinction between intended censorship and censorship in practice. I've allowed that, at least in a hypothetical situation, just re-shelving books, without ANY other controls, might not amount to censorship in practice. I've tended to think that the most important question is whether or not the library HAS a particular item, and that WHERE the item was shelved was secondary, provided there were no restrictions within the library itself. In part, I was putting some effort into being fair to the other side, so I tended to think that their inability or unwillingness to state clear criteria for re-classifying books, or to state plainly what they want the library to do in terms of other controls, was just a failure to think the practicalities through.

I think my reasoning was sound. But is was also far too theoretical. The hypothetical universe in which a book can be moved to a different shelf location because somebody objects, but without any other controls in place, just doesn't exist in the real world.

My change of thinking on this results from a co-incidence of timing, one in which I've been faced with the inexorable "mission creep" of the would-be censors. We have SafeLibraries' recent post, in which he claims that neither labeling nor re-shelving amount to censorship, but a few sentences later reveals his true colors by writing about the need to "keep such material from children." We have the amazing self-deception, and deception of others, by Ginny Maziarka in her WBKV radio interview, where she denies being interested in "banning" books, then just two minutes later mentions there are three books she wants to "remove." Listening to Maria Hanrahan's interview on WBKV radio a few days later, I was amazed at how quickly some of the callers expanded the scope of materials they wanted controlled, from supposedly "pornographic" books, to materials "inappropriate" for minors, to any book that mentioned (just mentioned) criminal activity. We have the radio host's own denial that re-shelving amounted to censorship, even as he repeatedly changed his position as to whether a child could check a book out independently, or with a parent present, or only the parent could check a book out on behalf of the child. And none of this is unique to West Bend, as the Leesburg, Fla., case shows. The book-challengers there say they are all for open access, but then want arbitrarily to excluded certain books from that openness.

I am constructing a slippery-slope argument here, an argument that says we shouldn't do A, because even if A is neutral it will lead to B, and B will definitely lead to negative consequences. A slippery-slope argument CAN be a rhetorical fallacy, but isn't an automatic fallacy: it depends on the real likelihood of sliding down the slope, of how likely it is that A will really lead to B. And that's the key point that has changed for me. Based on what the would-be censors have said (and said, and said), I now feel there is no way to avoid sliding down that slope.

So I conclude that re-Shelving is censorship. Labeling is censorship. One, the other, or both are censorship. Not because those things interfere with access to ideas by themselves, but exactly because they don't ever and won't ever occur in a vacuum. You're lucky if your local would-be censor tells you flat out that they want to prevent children from checking out or reading certain books: at least those are being honest. But those are also few, as the deluge of self-contradictions in the rhetoric of the more deceptive censors of West Bend reveals.

If you let them re-shelve now, next year they'll want a turnstile to keep children in the Children's section and out of the General shelves. If you let them apply a rating sticker now, next year they'll want the library data base to keep track of patrons' ages and disallow checkouts based on book content. That's a slippery-slope argument, and it's a valid one. Their own words indict them. They're not interested in "protecting children." Their goal is to control public discourse and control young minds.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Quotable Quote

"What we DON'T want is the people that DON'T read a lot telling us what to read."
--Maureen Johnson, author of The Bermudez Triangle, Young Adult fiction challenged in Leesburg, Florida.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Banned in Leesburg Too?

In a VERY long blog post, SafeLibraries calls attention to a book challenge in Leesburg, Fla., that is somewhat a miniature version of the West Bend controversy. The two books in question are Maureen Johnson's The Bermudez Triangle, and Only In Your Dreams, a book in Cecily Ziegesar's Gossip Girls series.

It is really worth your 8:51 to watch Johson's video response to the challenge on YouTube (CLICK HERE). If you have trouble with the links within the video, CLICK HERE for the 3:57 Fox News story and CLICK HERE for the local TV story with book excerpts.

Of course, underlying much of this is a failure on the part of many to read the challenged books, or even just to skim them enough to judge the work as a whole rather than on out-of-context excerpts, as the author points out in the video.'s a LOT like the West Bend situation.

Unsurprisingly, SafeLibraries supports the would-be censors in a long tirade against the American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, and the Kids Right to Read Project. I guess the National Council of Teachers of English just neglected to weigh in on this one.

SafeLibraries asserts that just moving or labeling books isn't censorship. I could almost believe him, if just a few lines later he hadn't written about the need to convince the library to "legally keep such material from children." The Leesburg parents take the same line, claiming they're all for open access, they just don't want that open access to extend to these books. Not quite as bad as Ginny Maziarka in her WBKV radio interview, saying at one minute that she doesn't want to ban books, then a couple minutes later talking about removing at least two or three.

He writes: "Legally Protecting Children is Not Censorship." This really is a great sound bite with a lot of gut-level appeal. But if you think about it, it doesn't really say anything. The word legally automatically precludes the possibility of censorship, since censorship is illegal. Protecting is a wonderful idea, but he doesn’t say from what. This issue is about books, and no book ever kidnapped or molested a child. Children is a word that automatically garners sympathy, but the books in question are in the Young Adult section, and a fifteen year old is not the same thing as a five year old, although the censors always want us to treat them the same. And back to censorship, already precluded by legally, making the entire sentence circular: it says nothing.

He claims the ALA is lying when it says the Gossip Girls book has "serious value," because elsewhere they say the same book is "perhaps not the most literary." He seems not to comprehend that there can be quite a gap between "not the most literary," in the context of art, and "lacking serious value," in the sense of obscenity. He is trying to make both the ALA and obscenity law say things they don't say.

He abuses, yet again, the Supreme Court's US v. ALA decision, claiming that it not only covers internet filtering but also "implicitly the underlying book collection policies." He's making that part up. The decision doesn't say that. The decision was about internet filters, and even that only within the context of the strings attached to certain federal funding programs. This is what he wishes the decision to say, but it doesn't.

He writes: "I suppose if defying the US Supreme Court is something with which you agree, the ALA is an excellent source, but I would never be able to sidestep the US Supreme Court so glibly." Of course, he doesn't offer any specifics on what the ALA does that "defies" the Supreme Court, or explain how one even CAN defy the Supreme Court. I don't think he can explain it, since his concept of defiance is based on quite imagniary interpretations of the Court's decisions.

SafeLibraries tries, yet again, to alter the basic meaning of the Board v. Pico decision. Of course, this was about removing books, not re-shelving, and about a school library, which has some different legal issues than a public library has. Oh, and he forgets to mention that the Pico decision was an utter defeat for the censors, and the removed books went back on the shelves. He likes this decision because it says that "pervasively vulgar" books could be removed, although it doesn't define that concept. SafeLibraries thinks it means what HE wants it to mean.

Girl Goddess #9

This is my seventh review of a book on the MAZIARKA LIST, and my second of a book by Francesca Lia Block. This review is based on the HarperCollins E-Book edition.

Girl Goddess #9 is a collection of nine short stories, each about different young women in very different circumstances. The stories are similar to each other in that each reflects a young woman's path of self-discovery through one or another stage of adolescence. An interesting part of Block's writing style is to describe scents, flavors, and textures to complete the emotional picture of various scenes. My favorite of the nine stories was Dragons in Manhattan, which describes a girl growing up in New York with her biological mother and her mother's female partner. In junior high she becomes aware of the differences between her family and other families, and yearns to find her biological father. She runs away to search for him, and her journey turns into one of discovery of herself, her parents, and the world around her. It's a good read.

While too grown-up for younger children, many teens will enjoy this collection. There is no violence, but some strong language is used. Drug use is mentioned, but is not glorified (one character dies of an overdose). Sex is mentioned, and in two places there is a very brief description of a sexual act. The objection of the would-be censors, as near as it can be estimated, probably has more to do with the fact that some of the characters are gay, and one is transsexual. There are no illustrations.

There is, as usual, no justification for asserting that this book could even come close to meeting the legal definition of obscenity. I hope that by now it goes without saying that I welcome a clear explanation of the standards used by the would-be censors to classify this work as objectionable, and a clear explanation of exactly what they want the library to do about it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Anti-Censorship Manifesto

With the approach of Banned Books Week (26 Sept. - 3 Oct.), the blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) has posted the Banned Books Week 2009 Manifesto, a poster with a quite strongly worded statement about censorship. Click HERE to see a PDF file of the poster and statement. The text of statement, copied from the poster, is:
To you zealots and bigots and false
patriots who live in fear of discourse.
You screamers and banners and burners
who would force books
off shelves in your brand name
of greater good.

You say you’re afraid for children,
innocents ripe for corruption
by perversion or sorcery on the page.
But sticks and stones do break
bones, and ignorance is no armor.
You do not speak for me,
and will not deny my kids magic
in favor of miracles.

You say you’re afraid for America,
the red, white and blue corroded
by terrorists, socialists, the sexually
confused. But we are a vast quilt
of patchwork cultures and multi-gendered
identities. You cannot speak for those
whose ancestors braved
different seas.

You say you’re afraid for God,
the living word eroded by Muhammed
and Darwin and Magdalene.
But the omnipotent sculptor of heaven
and earth designed intelligence.
Surely you dare not speak
for the father, who opens
his arms to all.

A word to the unwise.
Torch every book.
Char every page.
Burn every word to ash.
Ideas are incombustible.
And therein lies your real fear.
— Ellen Hopkins
bestselling author of Crank and newly published Tricks

Common Sense Citizens?

Today's post on the WISSUP blog announces a new website for the Common Sense Citizens of Washington County or CSCWC. I don't know what role, if any, this might play in the ongoing library debate.

This (Censorfreelib) blog being dedicated to issues of Censorship, I will not here critique any other issues that might appear on the new website, just as I have restrained myself from commenting on most of the other issues raised on the WISSUP blog (sometimes biting my tongue to the point of pain).

As to the library issue, I can only say that I am surprised to see the WISSUP blog give support to an organization that lists its number one value as the "US Constitution." The would-be censors of West Bend have demonstrated a profound lack of understanding of the role of the Constitution in the U.S. legal system. They seem unable to recall that the Constitution protects intellectual freedom even in West Bend, and prohibits the officialization of any religion.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Intellectual Freedom Award

Thank You to The Motley Cow and Michael Zimmer for bringing attention to the West Bend recipients of the WLA/Proquest Intellectual Freedom Award. A nice article in the Wisconsin Library Association Newsletter reads in part:
the Wisconsin Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Round Table is honored to announce that the West Bend Public Library, and in particular,Director Michael Tyree and Young Adult Librarian Kristin Pekoll, West Bend staff, members of the Library Board, and supportive community members, specifically blog creator Maria Hanrahan, will be honored with the 2009 WLA/Proquest Intellectual Freedom Award. The nomination specifically stated:

Together and via their unique roles, the staff, the board and the community members have been able to defend people’s right to read materials of their choosing — without barriers that prohibit access to information. I am in awe of all that they’ve faced and in all that they’ve accomplished.They are role models for us all.