Sunday, February 28, 2010

Looking For Alaska

Although Looking for Alaska is probably not appropriate for younger children, it is not entirely clear why it has become a cause célèbre among the censorious crowd.  The book does contain underage smoking and drinking, swearing, and some sex, but also is marketed for, and usually shelved in libraries for, older teens and young adults.

In Depew, New York, in 2008, the book was being used in an 11th-grade English class, as it is in many English classes across America. Recognizing the book could be controversial, the school administration sent a letter to parents, offering them a choice: parents could choose to allow their children to read Looking for Alaska or an alternative book. This protected parental choice, but that was just not enough for some parents, who wanted to choose for other people’s children and not just their own. They tried, unsuccessfully, to get the school to drop the book entirely.  In September of 2009 it showed up on the list of 43 books challenged in Leesburg, Florida.  It also figures heavily in SafeLibraries’ ramblings. He quotes extensively from the book on his website, claiming it is “One Example of How the ALA Pushes Porn On Children.”  In one blog post, SafeLibraries somehow blames the American Library Association for the accidental placement of the book with children’s literature on a grocery store shelf. The cover is identifiable in the photograph he provides, although he doesn’t name the book, describing it merely as “an ALA-awarded book containing oral sex.”

The best defense of the book comes from the author John Green himself, who reacted with anger and humor in a 4-minute video, available on YouTube and his website.

Looking for Alaska
 is about Miles Halter, a sixteen-year-old who realizes he is leading a ridiculously uneventful life and so sets off for boarding school. There he meets the crazy yet wonderful Alaska Young. When tragedy strikes, he must come to terms with loss and love. Well written and rich with metaphor and humour, the book enables the reader to relate to the characters and their emotions.

Miles and his friends do engage in smoking and drinking, which are not portrayed as positive behaviors, but as the effects of peer pressure. At one point, the characters watch a pornographic movie pilfered from another student’s room. There are a few sentences giving a very basic description of what is going on in the movie, but the discussion among the characters also points out the minuses of pornography. The biggest controversy seems to arise from a few sexual scenes, including one that describes Miles receiving oral sex from his girlfriend Lara. Honestly, this scene is about as arousing as the back of a shampoo bottle. The scene is, as author John Green intended, awkward, clumsy, and vapid. It is part of the subplot that Miles is dating Lara because having a girlfriend is a part of "fitting in," and that his emotional connection with her is weak. It is meant to contrast with the next scene where there is an intense emotional connection between Miles and Alaska.

[This article was written in collaboration with Meghan of]

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Myth of the Evil ALA

While not quite universal, it has become commonplace among censorship proponents to portray the American Library Association (ALA) as an evil institution. SafeLibraries, and West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries, to name but two, have been vitriolic in their condemnation of the ALA. Typical claims are that the ALA is stealing control of libraries from local tax-payers, that it advises libraries to violate the obscenity laws and the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), or that it promotes pornography for children. When I try to defend the ALA against such ridiculous charges, I'm accused of portraying them as "angels" who can do no wrong. In fact, all I'm saying is that they're not quite the devils the censors portray them to be. I'd be perfectly willing to face the shortcomings of the ALA, given a realistic discussion of them.

The plain fact is that the ALA is just not a power to be reckoned with. Try rummaging through the endless broken links on their website and you'll see that they are consistently understaffed and underfunded. ALA has no bevy of lawyers to devote to local censorship battles, no authority to hire or fire employees in any library, no control over any library's budgets or expenditures, nor a pile of pornographic books to donate. There is exactly one thing that the ALA can offer to libraries beleaguered with censorship attempts, and that is their knowledge and experience. Having dealt with censorship attempts over and over again, the ALA has accumulated knowledge of what the law does and does not say about Free Speech and censorship, and experience in responding to censors. They can explain articulately what the mission of a library really is, and why best practices support inclusiveness and open access to information and ideas. This one thing the ALA has to offer also happens to be the one thing that censors can tolerate the least.

It is tempting to suggest that the censors portray the ALA as evil because it has so often thwarted their efforts. This is not a realistic assessment, however. As hard as the ALA may work against some censorship efforts, and as important as that work is, it's really not the reason that most censorship efforts fail. Most attempts at censorship fail simply because censorship is illegal in these United States. The occasionally successful attempt is almost always one that "flew under the radar," drawing little attention to itself, and escaping the scrutiny of lawyers and the courts. The censors have never been able to face up to the fact that what they want libraries to do is break the law. Their efforts fail over and over again, sometimes spectacularly, but they never seem to learn.

This creates a huge cognitive dissonance in the minds of the censors. They believe in the sanctity of their goals, and can't accept the notion that the law doesn't support them. This leaves them without a reasonable explanation for why their demands are rejected time and time again.

Arising from unreason in the first place, their cognitive dissonance requires a non-realistic, non-rational solution. That irrational solution is to blame the ALA. The censors convince themselves that they were right all along, that a small group of prudish bullies should be able to tell their local library what to shelve and what not to shelve, that removing books somehow isn't censorship, that the slightest mention of sex, sexuality, or profanity qualifies a book as obscene, and that adults can legitimately be restricted to reading only what is fit for young children. They hallucinate that the world would actually work that way if only the evil ALA didn't interfere.

This mythology of the evil ALA is seriously neurotic, but absolutely vital. Without it, the censors would have to face the fact that their own values and actions are antisocial, based in an unwillingness to live with people who have values different from their own.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Kudos to Monroe County School District, FL

Kudos to the Monroe County School District in the Florida keys! They have a censorship attempt on their hands, and it's too early to tell how it will turn out (I might take back my kudos later). But so far school administrators have had the presence of mind not to overreact. The challenged book is still in the library, and seems likely to stay there, at least until after they've gone through the formal review process. The administrators who removed the dictionary from classrooms in California, and those who (at least temporarily) dropped the definitive edition of Diary of a Young Girl in Virgina, would do well to study how a professional school districts handles book challenges.

The object of parental wrath in the Monroe County School District is Judy Blume's young adult novel Forever, which is not part of any classroom curricula, but is available in the school library. Published in 1975, the book does contain descriptions of sexual activity. The characters in the book act responsibly, discussing their options and planning birth control, and perhaps it is this more than anything else that most offends the parents of young readers. The National Coalition Against Censorship reports on their blog that some parents complained that the book contains “a distorted view of sex, promiscuity, [and is] usurping parental control.” reports that one parent's complaint was that a student read parts of the book out loud on the bus, although it is far from clear what that has to do with the school library.

The results of the school's review of the book have yet to be announced. The NCAC has sent a letter asking the principal to resist the attempted censorship.  Ironically, author Judy Blume lives in Florida near the affected school district. A frequently challenged author, Ms. Blume's Website has several pages dedicated to identifying and resisting censorship. The American Library Association's web page on frequently challenged authors says "Five of Judy Blume’s books are on the list of The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 to 1999: Forever (7), Blubber (30), Deenie (42), Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (60), and Tiger Eyes (89)."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Just Disconnect?

In another one of those situations in which you've got to laugh so you don't cry, I recently saw two fascinating comments posted in response to a newspaper story about internet filters and libraries:

"Computer use . . . really isn't a function of a library to begin with."

"I say get rid of the internet at the library, we used to do research with books in the good old days."

It is impossible to guess how serious the two comentators were, or if their tongues were planted firmly in their cheeks as they wrote.  Nonetheless, they have aptly crystallized a key point in the internet filtering debate.  

The impact of the internet on our society has been immense.  It has completely reordered how most of us find information about anything, whether it is for academic research, reading the local news, deciding which restaurant to go to, or finding out what's on TV tonight. For more savvy organizations the internet has become the first place to put up-to-date information on anything, and few businesses can afford not to have a web presence today.  I haven't opened a paper telephone directory in years, although these tree-killers are still relentlessly delivered to my door, unsought and unwelcome.  

The impact of the internet has also been intense.  Most of this reordering of information access has taken place in only 25 years, and is still on-going.  Naturally, with any change so pervasive and rapid, there is some struggle to keep up. Some individuals still prefer paper and pencil to computer screen and keyboard, and some organizations still haven't figured out how to use the internet wisely, or at all.

Working on a university campus I see a microcosm of this struggle every day. Almost everything I do as a researcher and instructor is online, and I expect my students and colleagues to work the same way.  But at the organizational and bureaucratic levels, universities are amazingly non-adaptive institutions.  So many administrative offices still think in terms of pamphlets and paper forms! Their web pages are an afterthought, if they are any thought at all, and the result is the maintenance of an arcane impenetrability surrounding policies and procedures.  

This mixture of adaptation and resistance to change complicates how we deal with internet filtering issues in schools and libraries. On the one hand, libraries and librarians tend to be very aware of and well adapted to the internet age.  They understand that the internet is a critical component of all kinds of information access. They recognize that the internet is a huge library in and of itself. They realize that the internet has replaced the street corner and public square in terms of presenting and receiving ideas and opinions.  But outside the library we quickly run into more resistance by the outdated.  Some city and county officials are very internet savvy, but others are not, and their decisions about internet filters at local libraries are often marred by a counter-technological prejudice that could almost be quaint if it didn't cause so many legal and financial headaches.  The boards and administrations of public schools are often more like university administrations, preferring the arcane to the open, and thus just instinctively censorious.  The gaps and vagaries within the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) show that the legislators who crafted it don't understand what the internet is or how it works, or how the internet is important to the mission of public libraries. The US Supreme Court, erudite but behind the times, showed a similar failure to grasp what the internet is, when it handed own its US v. ALA decision allowing the CIPA to be enforced. That decision repaired only one gap of many in the CIPA, and left the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and already beleaguered libraries without guidance for grappling with the remaining mess.

We are now ten years into the 21st century.  It is past time for the comentators mentioned above, and other Luddites among us, to catch up at least to the 1990s.  Computer use is an integral and essential part of what libraries are and what libraries do, just as computer use is an integral and essential part of every other aspect of modern living. Those who look back nostalgically to the era of doing research amid stacks of paper books and journals simply have not experienced the huge jump in speed and thoroughness that the internet makes possible, and can't comprehend the impact taking such a tool away would have. Using internet filters judiciously to protect young children from illegal graphics is a practical way of facing the realities of modern life.  But hijacking that effort in order to gain control over what adults can and cannot access on the internet is as reprehensible as it is medieval. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Library Comfort?

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.  

Friday, February 12, 2010

Has SafeLibraries Gone Too Far?

I really think SafeLibraries went far too far in his post of 12 Feb.  I won't repeat his headline here, because it is nothing less than character assassination.  He names two individuals, proclaims one unfit for a particular government job, and accuses the other of committing a crime.  He writes, "people who defraud the E-Rate program go to jail.  People who conspire to defraud the E-Rate program also go to jail." He then names an individual and writes that she "may be guilty of both, in my opinion." 

SafeLibraries' attack on the reputations of these individuals was touched off because one of his victims became "President Obama's choice for the National Museum & Library Services [IMLS] Board."  The details of their allegedly inappropriate actions are old news, however.  It all goes back to SafeLibraries' post of 19 December, in which he claims that an instance of  patron accessing pornography at the Brooklyn Public Library is evidence of some kind of violation of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA).

SafeLibraries does not understand what the CIPA requires and does not require. Even if he did, he doesn't know enough about what happened in the particular incident in question to know whether or not the act was violated.  If I were he, I'd want to understand these things before I went around accusing specific individuals of breaking the law.

To be brief, a library could be fully compliant with the CIPA, without committing any kind of fraud or other misdeed, and still have a situation in which a patron manages to access illegal pornography on the web using a library computer.  The most likely ways this could happen are:

  1. The internet filter underblocked.  All filtering software underblocks to some degree, occasionally allowing an image to pass through to the patron that really should have been blocked. Occasional failures of this type are unavoidable and are not violations of the CIPA.
  2. The patron may have downloaded an image that was attached to an e-mail message, was attached to an Instant Message, or was made available by several different means within an online chat room.  While some internet filtering programs try to block inappropriate images in these kinds of communication, no such blocking is required by the CIPA. The library might have a filter that does not try to block such downloads, or the library might have deactivated that particular kind of blocking, if their filter has it.  None of that violates the CIPA in the slightest.
  3. The library patron may simply, and quite legally, have requested that the library deactivate the filter while he was using the computer.  It is important to bear in mind that the CIPA is the Children's Internet Protection Act.  In the US v. ALA decision that allowed the CIPA to be implemented, the Supreme court emphasized the right of adults to have the filter disabled on demand.  This was echoed in an order by the Federal Communications Commission, which administers compliance with the act.  See my post of Jan. 10th for details on this.

    This doesn't mean that nobody ever commits any kind of fraud with regard to the CIPA.  SafeLibraries is eagerly searching for such an event, and although he hasn't found what he thinks he found in this particular instance, he might find a valid case, someday.  Assuming that a library has received E-Rate or related funds from the federal government and has certified that it is in full compliance with the CIPA, I can only think of three situations that would amount to fraud and would be responsible for allowing a patron to access illegal online pornography.  There might be more, but all I could come up with are:

    1. The library could have lied outright, claiming it has internet filters installed when it actually has none.  
    2. The library might have some computers that are filtered and some without filters.  Whether or not this violates the CIPA is a bit fuzzy, as I've seen some legal opinions asserting that a library could have unfiltered computers, as long as those computers were reserved for use only by adults.  These legal opinions don't have broad support, however, and my own suspicion is that this pushes the envelope too far.  If I were running a CIPA-compliant library, I'd make sure all the computers have filtering software installed and activated (although I'd also allow adult patrons to disable those filters as they see fit).
    3. A library might have a filtering program that is so bad at blocking illegal pornography that its more like having no filter at all.  This is entirely hypothetical, though.  I am aware of no such software.  Also, the CIPA states no minimum effectiveness level for filtering software, nor even states how such effectiveness would (or could) be measured.  This item, then, is far too vague to be of practical importance.

    SafeLibraries is entitled to his opinions, however uninformed they may be.  He has a lot of homework to do if he wants to be taken seriously.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010

    On the Taxpayer's Dime?

    A common complaint about unrestrained internet access is the claim that taxpayer's are somehow footing the bill for some library patrons to view pornography. This point is often raised by censorship proponents, but not by them alone. Some more neutral commentators take this position as well, often claiming to be injecting a note of practicality into the debate. They feel that by steering the discussion away from anti-pornography alarmism to a discussion of costs and who pays, they're rising above the fray. Unfortunately, they just haven't thought things through very well.

    Is the taxpayer subsidizing the use of online porn at the public library? The simple answer is "no."

    In an artificial sense, it is possible to come up with a dollar figure. Assuming one could accurately distinguish pornography from what is not pornography -- a difficult assumption at best -- one might be able to determine what percentage of the data (measured in megabytes) that a library received over the internet included pieces of pornographic images. That percentage could be applied to the total burdened cost of internet services to the library for the same time period, and the result would be a dollar amount. That rather theoretical dollar amount would represent the taxpayers' contribution to accessing pornography at the library.

    The problem with this view is that it doesn't reflect how a library actually pays for internet service. A library's internet connection is not like cable television at home, where a subscriber might pay one fee for basic cable and an additional fee for "adult" channels, or even a pay-per-view fee for specific programs. Most libraries pay a single fee that provides access to the entire internet, without any divisions or subdivisions of the service. It's either on or it's off, all or nothing. Most libraries pay a flat rate, or a flat rate within a very large range of data traffic, with the result that the internet connection costs the library the same, whether it is used to download research data, is used to download pornography, or goes unused altogether. It doesn't make sense, given that kind of cost structure, to claim that the taxpayer is subsidizing anyone's use of pornography, even if some patrons are viewing such materials. What the taxpayer is buying is the internet connection, end of story.

    Those who raise this poorly thought out cost analysis often take the argument a step further, to bring in the issue of selection. They try to draw an analogy between internet filters and the process by which a library selects which books to acquire. The argument is that since a library doesn't have every book, it need not provide access to every website, and that this comparison somehow makes economic sense. This is a very poor analogy indeed.

    Libraries have to be selective about traditional holdings like books and recordings because those items have very direct costs. Every library acquisition is an expense, not only in terms of the purchase prices of the acquired materials but also in terms of the labor hours and other burdened expenses that go into the process of selection, acquisition, cataloging, and shelving. On an ongoing basis, every inch of library shelf space is a limited commodity that represents monthly expenses in terms of building, heat, light, maintenance, labor hours, and more. Books consume ongoing labor hours by being checked out, checked in, shelved, and inventoried.

    Internet access in a library is not free, but many of the kinds of costs mentioned above just don't apply. One cost that specifically doesn't apply is that of selection, since no library staff are selecting the materials that are available. Another is shelf space. A computer takes up room to be sure, but usually work space, not shelf space. Even if the computer is using up space that could otherwise shelve books, the vast collection of materials that is available online makes the per-unit cost in terms of space a virtual zero. There is no process of checking in, checking out, or inventory verification, so those costs are reduced to zero for internet items. That brings us to what is probably the most important difference, which is the huge Return On Investment that comes from the library's expenditures on internet access. For a flat monthly fee the library can deliver access to innumerable books, news sources, academic articles, research databases, and other materials. Since the cost of internet access is divided out over so vast a number of accessible items, the cost of any one book, article, or anything else on the web is vanishingly small. In fact, viewed in terms of simple cost analysis, any library would want unfettered internet access, because the more materials that are accessible, the higher the Return On Investment. Restricting access can only lower that ROI.

    On the other hand, the costs of internet filters do not rely on fuzzy accounting or poor analogies. Internet filters have direct and tangible costs. A library has to purchase the filtering software, will pay some technician to install it, and, depending how that software is configured, may need to purchase additional equipment. The library will pay a subscription fee for regular updates to the internet black lists and white lists that are critical to the filter's functioning. Library staff will be taking some of their labor hours to manage the filter, unblocking sites or disabling filters, or overriding black list and white list settings as needed. If the filters are installed in compliance with the Children's Internet Protection Act, staff time and other resources will also be devoted to filing the certification paperwork. In an accounting sense, there is no tangible return from the money expended on internet filters: it is pure expense.

    None of this is to argue that libraries should never filter any internet content for any patrons. That is a separate line of reasoning having little to do with financials. But those who try to bring a cost analysis into the argument have just not stopped to think about the structure and true sources of the costs a library must bear. Viewed strictly as an accounting problem, libraries should seek to get the most out of their internet fees by making available to patrons as much internet content as possible, and should seek to reduce the costs associated with internet filters, an expense category that produces no measurable returns.

    Saturday, February 6, 2010

    Books Challenged or Banned (Resource)

    A great resource for tracking censorship is a set of booklets published by the American Library Association, in cooperation with a number of other organization, titled Books Challenged & Banned in 2008-2009. There are presently five booklets in the series, starting with 2004-2005. These tend to cover censorship attempts from May to May, so I'm looking forward to the 2009-2010 edition to come out this summer.

    These booklets are based on the ALA's Newsletter for Intellectual Freedom, which is available by subscription. Books Challenged and Banned pulls that information together into a single place, listing works by title and author, and describing the censorship attempts made against each. The documented censorship attempts are serious, describing cases in which "someone has tried to restrict another person’s ability to choose." Of course, as the booklet itself points out, this information is based only on censorship attempts that are reported to the ALA. Estimates indicate that most censorship attempts go unreported.

    The 2008-2009 edition includes the earlier stages of the West Bend debacle, before it was extended to scores of books. The Leesburg, FL, upheaval didn't start until well into 2009, and so is not included at all. Producing the 2009-2010 edition, then, will be quite a lot of work, given the number of books challenged just by those two campaigns, let along the many other, smaller acts of censorship that were reported.

    The following links will access the PDF files containing each year's edition. These files are on the large side, so might take a few moments to download and open:

    When the 2009-2010 edition comes out, a link should be posted at the bottom of the ALA's Free Downloads page related to Banned Books Week.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010

    Why Leesburg and Lake County Got Quiet

    Readers of my blog may recall that around June through October a censorship campaign was underway in Leesburg and Lake County, Florida. Starting with a complaint about Maureen Johnson's The Bermudez Triangle and Cecily Ziegesar's Only in Your Dreams, the undertaking quickly expanded to a challenge against 43 titles.  The challengers wanted the books re-shelved from the children's section to the adult section of the library, and to have warning labels attached to them. Pressure was first applied to the Leesburg library, but was rejected. The challengers then took their campaign to the surrounding Lake County. This, too, was shot down, and that seems to have been the end of it.

    I think the Leesburg/Lake County situation bears out one lesson I've repeatedly emphasized on this blog: the importance of qualified legal advice. The Lake County commissioners took a wise step that is skipped in far too many censorship debates: they consulted the county attorney, asking for a legal opinion on the requested re-shelving. The value of this step is demonstrated by the abrupt end of the censorship campaign. The commissioners clearly understood that they could not accede to the censors' demands because the county attorney's opinion was unequivocal. It is worth noting a few quotations from the attorney's memo to the commissioners, which is available through Open Records Request:
    Courts have generally held that the relocation of a book from a children’s section to the adult section of the public library constitutes a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, unless such publications are deemed obscene as that term is defined by the U.S. Supreme Court and Florida Statutes, or unless such decision is based upon established, regular, and facially unbiased procedures for review of controversial materials.
    In other word, just moving the books from one section to another, depending on the motivation for that move, can violate Free Speech rights.  Books can certainly be removed if they are obscene, but determining that a book is obscene must be based on court precedents and state statutes, and not merely on personal opinions.  Transparent procedures for considering such actions must avoid giving the appearance of bias.

    Therefore, the government cannot limit access to library materials unless the government can demonstrate that the restriction is necessary to achieve a compelling governmental interest and there are no less restrictive means available.
    Note that here the attorney has carefully included the important phrase "and there are no less restrictive means available."  This phrase is critical to understanding Free Speech law, and is nearly always omitted by would-be censors when they talk about the compelling state interest in protecting children from obscene materials.

    However, where the government, in making their decision to remove or relocate a publication, ignores the advice of literary experts, ignores the views of librarians and teachers, and ignores the guidance of literary publications that rate books for students, it faces a challenge that the decision was based upon irregular and ad hoc procedures.
    In other words, pandering to public opinion without considering expert advice can cause legal problems.

    In rendering this legal opinion, the county attorney repeatedly cited four court precedents:

    Board v. Pico
    Counts v. Cedarville School District
    Right to Read Defense Committee of Chelsea v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea
    Sund v. City of Wichita Falls

    These are cases I've relied on quite heavily in this blog and my related website when countering the claims of would-be censors.  My estimation of the importance of these cases has gone up a notch after seeing how an attorney applied them to a typical censorship campaign.

    This brings up a second important point: not every attorney knows about these cases. While every attorney understands the First Amendment in a general sense, a detailed understanding of all the court decisions and their implications is a specialization not every attorney has. It can be useful, then, to provide a list of these cases to any attorney who is not a First Amendment specialist but who is faced with a censorship issue.  The attorney will form her or his own opinion, of course, but providing this list of cases can save a lot of time for everybody.

    (Click HERE to see information on these and other cases, including formal citations).

    Monday, February 1, 2010

    Canada's Freedom To Read Week 2010

    Canada's Freedom to Read Week 2010 starts this month, running from Feb. 21st through 27th. Freedom to Read week is "an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom." It is similar to Banned Books Week in the U.S.

    There are important differences in the law between the two countries, so the legalities of responding to censorship can't be applied from one to the other. Nonetheless, the patterns of censorship in both countries are similar, and it is illuminating to compare and contrast them. In particular, take note of the Canadian list of Challenged Books and Magazines.

    Just to demonstrate how similar censorship efforts are in both countries, check out How To Spot a Would-Be Censor on the Freedom To Read website. It says:
    The type of person who challenges books
    • Invariably denies being in favour of censorship;
    • Has rarely read the work in whole or often even in part;
    • Quotes excerpts out of context;
    • Demonizes the author and his/her other works.
    Sound Familiar?

    [With thanks to the Fahrenheit 451 Blog, for bringing attention to this event.]