Friday, October 30, 2009

A Different Kind of Book Challenge

An unusual book challenge came up recently at a public library in Cheshire, Connecticut.  This challenge is unusual because there are no claims at all being made about obscenity, age-inappropriateness or the like.  Instead, the Cheshire challenge is about the raw emotions of a community traumatized by a violent criminal act.

The library director recently decided that the library would acquire two copies of In the Middle of the Night: the Shocking True Story of a Family Killed in Cold Blood, by Brian McDonald.  The book is one journalist's attempt to tell the story, from the perspective of one of the alleged perpetrators, of a gruesomely violent home invasion and murder that took place in the Cheshire community.  The director made a reasonable selection choice, given that the book a) deals with the recent history of the community served by the library and b) some patrons had requested the book.

A firestorm of controversy erupted, though, when some residents objected to the library's decision to acquire the book.  Emotions about the crime understandably run high, and some citizens would prefer not to be reminded of it.  While the community seems split on the subject, some of those who want to keep the book out of the library have been strenuous and vocal in their opinion.  They've accused the director of having dictatorial power over book selection, even as the director has tried to resist the challengers' attempts to take over control of that process.

A measure of the emotion involved can be seen in the heated rhetoric on some of the news blogs about this issue, and also in the red herring issues raised by the book challengers.  They've tried to claim, for example, that having the book on the shelf violates a judge's existing gag order limiting press discussion of the criminal case against the alleged perpetrators, or will taint the pool of possible jurors who might one day be called to that trial.  It is obvious that this is just a dodge, since the book will be available outside the library, and just having the book in the library doesn't mean every citizen will read it. Even if there were some validity to this argument, it would be for a judge and court to deal with, not a librarian or the general public.

When the distracting and empty rhetoric is cast aside, we're left with a reasonable selection decision made by a library, supported by some residents and objected to by others.  The objectors want to claim some kind of veto power over the library and it's director, or some kind of line-item control over the expenditure of tax dollars, neither of which can be justified ethically or legally

Given the status of a public library as a limited public forum, a place with very stringent protections against censorship, I suspect a judge would call the citizen's attempt to override the library director's decision a heckler's veto.  A heckler's veto is an attempt to limit speech by or on behalf of a hostile audience, and courts have generally disallowed it.

News media closer to Cheshire have given a loud voice to the book challengers, but media in other parts of Connecticut have tended to to support the library director as a defender of Free Speech, who thankfully had enough backbone to stand up to the would-be censors.  See my web page on this subject for links to news and other details.

The local Library Advisory Board will meet on November 16th to discuss the matter and perhaps to make a recommendation.  If I understand the situation correctly, they can only advise, rather than order.  Meanwhile, it now (as of 29 October) appears that at least one of the copies of the book ordered by the director has arrived.  That changes things quite a bit, since now we're talking about REMOVING a book from the library, rather than SELECTING a new book -- a distinction that has weighed heavily in a number of court cases on Free Speech and libraries.

1 comment:

  1. Hmm, what a tricky decision. Interesting case.

    I would have held off putting it in the library for a while just so the community had time to relax after this incident.