Monday, November 23, 2009

Private Options and the Sincerity of the Censors

One of the larger errors in the thinking of censorship proponents is their failure to distinguish between their private values and public policy.  Any individual is perfectly entitled to define whatever they disapprove of as objectionable, and to take steps to keep such materials out of their personal lives.  They get to choose what books they buy, which movies they go see, what music albums their children can keep at home, and the like.

When it comes to their private choices, we have to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they're sincere in their beliefs.  But as soon as they try to impose private beliefs on society in general, that sincerity is can, and should, be questioned.  Once they've explored the public options and are told quite clearly that public policy can't or won't accommodate their goals, why do they persist?  The fact is that there are private options that can accomplish what they want to accomplish, at least with regard to their own children.  If they're really concerned with their children's wellbeing, and it's clear that they can't force the public library to do what they want, should they not then pursue those private options?

Persisting in attempts to subordinate public policy to their private beliefs shows that their aim is politics, and not protecting children.  It is a measure of their sincerity, or lack of it, that they continue to try to subordinate the public library to their private  values.

For those parents who want strict control over the values and information to which their children might be exposed in a public library, there are a number of private options:

  • Open a private library.  These used to be more common in the US, but have become quite rare, in part because they are very expensive to run.  But if a library is private -- serving only customers who have paid a membership fee -- the library can do whatever it wants.  They can select, remove, re-shelve, label, restrict access to, and filter whatever they want, however they want.  No need for any government intervention or court oversight.  No grounds for claims of banning or censorship.
  • Run a private library by mail.  It would still have to be a private membership operation to keep it legal, but would be a lot cheaper than a building patrons could visit (and there are specialized libraries already running like this).  They can put their catalog online and registered customers can check out and return books by mail.  Same freedom from those pesky Free Speech laws as above.
  • Operate a private library entirely on-line.  Increasingly, books, music, and video are all available electronically.  Many brick-and-mortar libraries already have many selections they can make available to patrons online.  The technology is well in place to support this, although some legal details are lagging a bit behind.  In spite of this temporary stumbling block, the age of the all-online library has arrived.
  • Create an online ratings service.  This has been done, but so far only in a fragmented and scattered sort of way. It could get a lot more formal without a lot of expenditure.  A ratings service could be an online catalog of materials vetted by various groups or organizations.  Contents could be described, and one or more ratings could be displayed for each title. Customer comments could be appended and edited.  Any parent could then check any book of interest against this rating service and make a decision in advance of visiting the public library. Paradoxically, such ratings would be available via internet from computers inside the public library -- they just wouldn't be integrated into the public library's catalog.

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