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Librarians Supporting Free “Political Speech”

All those people who think that the ALA and its house organ American Libraries are merely the tools of a radical leftist conspiracy to take over America one library card at a time now have to reckon with this opinion piece in the other AL: Librarians and the Threat to Free Political Speech.

I saw the title in my Google alerts and immediately thought, here we go again, yet another article about how librarians are a threat to political speech.

Or maybe it was about how librarians protected us all from threats to free political speech, the way they protect us from “censorship” and band books.

Imagine my surprise when I found a librarian not only in agreement with the Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission decision by the Supreme Court, but who thought that all librarians should be as well, because we librarians are all about free political speech.

In case you don’t keep up with all things SCOTUS, Citizens United is the decision that removed various restrictions on how much money corporations could spend on political propaganda. Corporations can now spend what they want, when they want, because corporations are persons and money is speech. God bless America.

We are told in the other AL that “As librarians, we should welcome unrestricted political speech and endeavor to help make it accessible to our users.”

The great thing about corporate “political speech” is that librarians don’t have to endeavor to make it accessible. It’ll saturate the media and drown out any murmurings about accessibility that librarians might make. The only information librarians get out into the media is that we’re not stereotypical librarians, and I don’t think people are listening.

In a very clever twist, the author defends Citizens United in language from the ALA Intellectual Freedom Manual, which states that “Society makes an equal commitment to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas regardless of the communication medium used, the content of work, and the viewpoints of both the author and the receiver of information.”

People who want to restrict such “political speech” are thus against free speech and intellectual freedom. This apparently includes Supreme Court Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, who all dissented from the ruling.

That revisionist interpretation of the Intellectual Freedom Manual is likely to throw some librarians into fits, but that’s what they get for opposing the intellectual freedom of corporations.

There’s a further analogy to a subject some librarians hold dear.

These pro-restriction groups seek to achieve the opposite of those free-speech values by limiting access to the information citizens need and deserve in order to make voting decisions. It is akin to removing all books from a library’s collection that support a certain political view. That is censorship.

I don’t share the radical faith in libraries of the ALA, but I have to admit that part leaves me a little breathless.

To think that political ads by corporations would ever contain “information citizens need and deserve to make voting decisions” strikes me as naive at best. All the information people need could easily be found online or in a library, but people don’t want information. If people wanted political information, they wouldn’t watch political TV ads in the first place.

The analogy with removing books from a library collection that support a certain political view seems weak, too. The sort of political media campaigns that are typical in America don’t provide “political views,” and whatever they do provide is always available somewhere else.

That, and a library removing books isn’t “censorship.”

Still, it’s nice to see American Libraries publishing a diversity of views, instead of more articles about how perfect libraries and librarians are. It shows that the ALA isn’t the politically monolithic and simplistic organization some people claim. Maybe the ALA Council can pass a resolution in support of the Citizens United decision. It would be more relevant than attacking or defending the Iraq War on intellectual freedom grounds.

Who knows? Next maybe they’ll publish something making fun of the ALA Council passing irrelevant political resolutions or a study debunking the myth of the librarian shortage. Stranger things have now happened.

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Comments

  1. Andrew says:

    I just can’t wait to read the letters to the editor in response to that gem. I suppose deliberately trolling your readers is one way to make your magazine seem a little less irrelevant.

    “Next maybe they’ll publish something making fun of the ALA Council passing irrelevant political resolutions or a study debunking the myth of the librarian shortage.”

    Coming from a publication that recently gushed about programs to hire undergrad students interested in libraries (because we’re just so desperate for librarians that we need to catch’em young), I won’t be holding my breath for that resolution.

  2. It’s boneheaded librarians like that (defending Citizens United? Really?) that give the rest of the profession a bad name. As if we did not have enough problems already, w have to put up with that type of ignoramus too in our profession?

  3. Spencer says:

    Removing texts from a certain political viewpoint isn’t censorship?

    I disagree. I worked with a supervisor who would weed any right wing biography as soon as it his his stacks with the thought that people who wanted that could get it other places- but not in that library.

    That is censorship. We censor through selection all the time, but to do it on political lines is scary.

    Now, I agree the analogy doesn’t hold up. I also, however, think Citizens United was the right decision by the SCOTUS.

  4. ElderLibrarian says:

    Spencer:
    Removing books from a library collection is not censorship. To censor something is to alter a part of a work (taking the n-word out of Huckleberry Finn) or banning a work by government action (I think this happened with certain racy books in this country). In the U.S. a library patron can either use interlibrary loan or buy a copy or borrow from another source-like their opininated uncle.
    A library should be buying books based on need, academic or community standards (sometimes these standards are not what we might personally approve). It also depends on how much money you got to spend. No library can buy everything that comes down the pike, this is where policy comes in.

    • Spencer says:

      elder,

      it is a form of censorship- absolutely.It might not be outright, textbook censorship, but making some materials available over others based on personal political preference (or rather, intentionally making some point of view more difficult to access for your own political reasons) is at the core of censorship.

      a censor is- “an official who examines books, plays, news reports, motion pictures, radio and television programs, letters, cablegrams, etc., for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds.”

      To me supressing the whole- or making the whole more difficuly to access- is equal to (at least) suppressing the part.

  5. Formerprof says:

    SCOTUS got this decision correct. Corpo-rations (see what I did there?) are “people” for the purposes of free speech. Just like every other group of people under the sun (labor unions, advocacy groups, professional groups, etc.), corporations have interest in influencing policy and political debate. They are perfectly within their rights to pool their money to support “their guy” or “their legislation.” If you don’t like the influence they have, you’re perfectly within your rights to build your group to counteract their influence. You are also perfectly free to boycott (and organize others to boycott) corporation who have political activity with which you disagree. This is the political society we have constructed.

    • bleh says:

      And thanks to deregulation and consolidation, it’s become virtually impossible to take a meaningful stand against those massive (and massively dislikable) companies that engage in the sorts of practices that you feel the world would be better left without. This may be the political society that we’ve constructed, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good one.

    • Fat Guy says:

      “Corpo-rations (see what I did there?)”

      Wow. The manure is so thick around you you’ve forgotten what fresh air is like. Fat Guy out.

    • Randal Powell says:

      The notion that corporations are people is ludicrous, and very bad for our country. Real people need to start fighting for their rights and interests.

    • Libraryman says:

      I don’t know, I can see the point of view. I think it is rather funny that we have this knee-jerk reactions to corporations as being evil. I mean I even couldn’t believe that they are NOT evil and I really don’t have any evidence to prove that they are, in fact, evil. It just seems like COMMON KNOWLEDGE that a corporation is up to no good.
      After all, there has never been anything stopping wealthy private citizens from pooling their money to produce political viewpoints.

    • spencer says:

      Corporations are owned by stockholders- which are people. the 1st amendment of them transfers to the corporation, right? I mean, they are the one’s paying for it. Nothing stops them from doing so outside the corporation. Nothing stops you from not buying what the corporation is selling.

      Of course corporations aren’t all evil. They are driven by the interests of their shareholders. (a lot of which are members of pension programs). These interests are getting the most money returned on their investment. Bottom line is, it’s removed a few steps from your kid’s teacher, or yourself and your city/university’s pension system. They are bound to make you as much money as they can- that’s the promise they made you when you invested in them (even indirectly). To this end, they often find it useful to lobby or support certain political positions- in order to (what they think will) give them the best outcome for making the most amount of money for their investors.

      Is that evil? No, I don’t think it is. Can we do without them? Yes. Go ahead. Pull your money out of companies you don’t like- and petition your pension plan to do the same. That is the power you have. If people stop investing the corporation with either change it’s ways or go away.

  6. Belinda Gomez says:

    It’s not popular but if some corporations can declare their political opinions, like the NYTimes and the Washington Post, why not other corporations? If you disagree with their message, you don’t have to buy their products.

  7. I Like Books says:

    I am both part of a corporation, in that I work for it, and an owner of it, in that I own stock in it. They can say whatever they want, but they’re not going to ask me about it. Some of that money they’re spending is mine, but they really couldn’t care less what I think of it.

    That’s the problem I have with it. Corporation-as-person is useful in the sense that small and highly liquid units of ownership can be traded with limited liability and without having to reincorporate every time a share is bought and sold. But free speech? That gives a small number of people free use of a lot of other people’s money.