While there is no shortage of censors who are quite egregious in their aims, seeking to reduce adults as well as children to reading only the most non-controversial, sanitized pablum, these are thankfully few and are thankfully easy to identify. Opposition naturally arises from the very extremity of their views. What can and does happen, unfortunately, is that more "moderate" public officials sometimes accede to such egregious demands. They mean well, and often think of themselves as being pragmatic, but just haven't thought very long or very carefully about Free Speech and censorship.
I was struck by a particularly cogent example of this kind of "moderate" concession to egregious aims during last October's attempt at censorship in the public library in Leesburg, Florida. I received an email from a county official whom I will not name. The identity of the individual sender is unimportant, since the sentiment expressed is a common one. Defending the would-be censors, the county official wrote to me:
All parents deserve to feel comfortable sending their children to the library to check out books.
It's easy to see the appeal such a position has: it just feels right. But thinking and feeling don't always lead to the same conclusions, and if we do stop to think about it, this is one of those short statements that speaks volumes. To hold this position, one must make a raft of assumptions, all demonstrably misleading.
One assumption embedded in the official's statement is that a public library is some kind of nursery school or day-care center. "Sending their children to the library" implies parents not going with the child, and implies that the library somehow provides adult supervision for unescorted minors. This is a common -- but dangerously wrong -- assumption about what a public library is. Parents should always be aware that library staff have neither the right nor responsibility to act in loco parentis, that is, with temporary parental authority. While there is a general understanding that people in libraries will maintain a reasonable level of quiet and decorum, library staff are not school teachers, nor principals, nor babysitters.
Another embedded assumption is that even if a library isn't a day-care center it is primarily a place for children, rather than for adults. While many citizens may perceive their public library this way, most libraries do not see themselves this way, and are not set up to function this way. Libraries serve entire communities, including adults, teenagers, and young children. Naturally, an entire community includes individuals with many different points of view. Certain materials appropriate for adults may not be appropriate for some children, but given the internal diversity within any community, there is no single standard for deciding which materials are appropriate for whom. While censors want to make this the responsibility of the library staff, the library staff understand that individual patrons get to make those kinds of choices for themselves. Parents with concerns about what their child might find in the library have no choice, then, other than to accompany the child.
And what is this "comfort" that "parents deserve" to feel? In an ideal world we would all like to believe that the library is a safe place to which to send our children, but such a view of the world is not very realistic. A library is, after all, a public place. Any one, familiar or stranger, local or out-of-towner, thoroughly decent or utterly depraved, can walk into the library. If your child is too young to go alone to city hall or the shopping mall or sports stadium, your child is too young to go alone to the library. We might wish the world to be otherwise, but we must also face reality.
In the context of the Leesburg censorship battle, this ideal of parental "comfort" also refers to the contents of books. Here we get to the heart of the tension between censorship and Free Speech. It is too easy for public officials to forget that Free Speech implies the opposite of "comfort." Free Speech guarantees that people can express themselves, even if some are uncomfortable with what is expressed or how it is expressed. Free Speech guarantees that individuals can make their own choices about what entertainment, information, or opinions they access, even if others are uncomfortable with those choices.
And how much Free Speech do we violate to bring about this supposedly deserved parental "comfort"? Libraries rarely hold any materials that violate applicable laws regarding obscenity. Some libraries have a few holdings that, in a given jurisdiction, are legally defined as "harmful to minors," meaning that it is "too racy" for minors, but is clearly legal for adults. In all the reviews of challenged books published on this blog, not a single work qualified as obscene, and exactly one could be considered harmful to minors in some jurisdictions. What is contested, then, is a class of materials that makes some parents uncomfortable, but is not obscene and is rarely too racy for minors in any legal sense. In other words, what is contested is a class of materials that is firmly, unequivocally, within the bounds of protected speech.
No, parents don't deserve to feel comfortable sending their children to the library to check out books. Certainly not if that feeling of comfort requires an infringement upon the First Amendment. In saying this, I am not trying to change the status quo in any way, or take away from anyone something they currently have. On the contrary, I'm trying to snap people out of their delusions about what the status quo is, so they can face the well established legal framework of Free Speech as well as the harsh realities of living in a dangerous world. A library is a public place. It has a serious mission to serve diverse educational and recreational goals for an entire community. And censors have a demonstrated tendency to exaggerate the offensiveness of materials they challenge, which are mostly protected speech.
A library is not a magical land of pop-up books and painted ponies, however much some adults want it to be so.