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.