Last week someone left a comment that the ALA OIF disagrees with me about “banned” books, and wondered what I thought of their arguments, such that they are. Since I hate to disappoint readers, I’ll engage one more time. The most amusing response was this one:
The briefest answer is this: public schools and public libraries are government agencies that operate pursuant to the First Amendment. Any official suppression of a book for the ideas it contains is unconstitutional censorship, a book ban.
Unlike the kind folks at the OIF, I’ve actually read the First Amendment, and there’s absolutely nothing in there that has anything to do with the “banned” books debate except the freedom of religion. The OIF has confused the freedom of speech with the freedom to read, and the freedom to read with the right to have the government supply your reading material. That’s a large logical leap. If a library chooses not to buy a book, or chooses to move a book from the children’s to the adult section of a library, absolutely no one’s freedom of speech has been abridged. I dare the OIF to find someone whose freedom of speech has been abridged. As usual, their arguments are confused and illogical.
Although I’ve written a lot about “banned” books, my primary objections to OIF shenanigans can be condensed to two.
1) By its own extremist logic, the OIF is incapable of arguing against making hard core pornography or excessively violent books or films available for young children. Everything is merely “information,” and everyone regardless of age somehow has a right to all that information. In the case of Internet pornography, they apparently have a duty to view the information if they happen to be passing by. Not only can they offer no argument against it, but if any concerned parents ask that such material be removed from the children’s section of a library, the OIF condemns them as censors.
Despite the high-minded rhetoric, practical instances of challenges almost always involve what is appropriate or inappropriate for children. Any group that is incapable of nuanced ethical argument distinguishing the needs of children from adults deserves not only to be ignored, but morally condemned.
2) The OIF uses deceptive language in their claims about “censorship.” I expect such dissembling rhetoric from politicians, but I prefer not to have it from my professional association. A library removing or not buying a book isn’t government censorship. Government censorship is very clear when it happens – just look to China or North Korea – but it is extremely rare in the United States. The OIF changes the meaning of “censorship” because it’s a strong word, and it makes their crusade against almost non-existent government censorship sound stronger.
Government censorship prevents the publication of information. Period. That’s what it means, and everyone but the ALA knows it. If a book were really censored, a library wouldn’t be able to buy it in the first place, much less remove it. Recently, the Pentagon bought all 10,000 copies of the first edition of a spy memoir and destroyed them, claiming that they contained information that could be damaging to national security. This is the best attempt at government censorship I’ve seen in the United States since the Nixon era. Had they not bungled the affair by clearing the book and then later un-clearing it, it would be tempting to give the Pentagon the benefit of the doubt, because there are secrets of national security that protect American lives. It would still be censorship, but sometimes censorship is justified, and the right to free speech isn’t absolute. If the OIF really knew anything about the First Amendment, they would know this.
Because of these two flaws in OIF thinking, it’s difficult to take them seriously. By using such extremist logic and sloppy language, they manage to turn what should be a serious debate about intellectual freedom and tolerance into a farce. A defense of intellectual freedom is admirable, but it can be defended without resort to irrational extremism or deceptive language.
By defending Internet pornography for children (which is the implication of fighting and losing against CIPA) and crying “government censorship” where none exists, the OIF actually damages the credibility of the ALA among rational people. Nobody has a right to view Internet pornography on a publicly funded computer in a public place. To filter it out isn’t government censorship. To claim differently is both false and morally obtuse. Defending Internet porn for children doesn’t make librarians look noble; it makes them look like cranks.
However, they’re right that something in the First Amendment applies to the situation. The freedom of religion. One might notice that the OIF doesn’t often bother to defend their claims, but that’s only because they’re indefensible. They’re like articles of faith, there to be chanted by the true believers and ignored by everyone else. Once you accept the articles of faith, you no longer need to reason clearly or use language appropriately. You just believe.