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.

1 comment:

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