Monday, September 28, 2009

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).

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