If you want to see the latest thing that makes some ALA Councilors cringe and protest and lose sleep at night, check out this awful film the ALA produced in 1977, The Speaker.
Couldn’t sit through it? Normally, I’d sit through it for you, but this time I just couldn’t. The best I could do was skip through and watch snippets, and they were all painful. It’s a terrible film even if you disagree with its message, which apparently a lot of librarians do.
Based on the ALA press release, it’s a film about a high school that invites an openly racist college professor to speak to the students about his white supremacy theories, because that totally seems like a plausible scenario, what with all the openly racist college professors around in the late 70s.
By then, even the racist professors had learned to talk in code. They wouldn’t have said “whites are superior to blacks.” They would have said “middle class suburbanites are superior to the urban poor.”
The intended goal was to make librarians think about their commitment to intellectual freedom and free speech and all that. Supposedly, when shown at an ALA conference in 1977, it turned out that a lot of librarians didn’t like free speech when it was speech they disagreed with. Go figure.
Now a whole bunch of ALA groups are planning another showing at ALA Annual in Las Vegas this month. The Intellectual Freedom Committee is a sponsor, and the Library History Round Table is a cosponsor.
In 1977, the ALA Black Caucus came out strongly against ALA having anything to do with the film. In 2014, the ALA Black Caucus is one of the cosponsors. Times have changed, but I’m just not sure how.
However, I’m pretty sure trotting out a list of all the Black Caucus members who opposed this in 1977 is irrelevant to the discussion when the current Black Caucus is cosponsoring the event. But some of the councilors incensed enough to try that very thing.
Some have accused the IFC of trying to draw a crowd through sensationalism, because all the librarians who weren’t librarians 37 years ago are going to be so jazzed that they can now waste 40 minutes of their lives viewing The Speaker at a conference where they could be doing six other more interesting things at the same time.
The IFC has also been accused of “opening old wounds,” which amounts to upsetting all the librarians from 37 years ago who are still around and who fought unsuccessfully to have ALA disavow the film. Nobody likes to remember failure.
Of course, other councilors are more open to the film, or at least the planned discussion of it. However bad the film might be, the discussion afterwards is bound to be different than it was in 1977.
There are intemperate voices on the other side as well, though, which isn’t surprising given that the film was initially created by the Office of Intellectual Freedom. Some of the councilors who don’t want ALA to sponsor this or be held responsible for the film are accused of “censorship.”
That should sound familiar to anyone who follows so-called Banned Books Week. Other councilors point out that not buying or removing an item from a library collection that is deemed inappropriate for that collection isn’t censorship, it’s selection.
Congratulations to those councilors, you’ve now used the very same argument that the Annoyed Librarian has been using for years. So you either agree with the OIF that you’re practicing censorship or you agree with the AL that you’re not. Touch choices!
That’s the part that amuses me most.
The only problem with the analogy is that an ALA conference isn’t a library, and showing The Speaker to a group of consenting adults isn’t equivalent to showing Internet porn in the children’s section of a public library.
Small children might very well be traumatized by some of the things that go on in Internet porn. If any grown up librarians claim to be equally traumatized by this terrible movie, they’re either lying to make a point or they have a lot more problems than just a showing of The Speaker.
Another councilor argues that not inviting certain speakers isn’t censorship. ALA wouldn’t invite a speaker who advocated burning down public libraries, for example.
And what an example it is. First of all, if there were such a speaker, which I doubt, the ALA might very well invite that person. Who better to challenge librarian complacency and get them thinking about the importance of libraries than someone like that?
Besides, theoretically, there’s no difference between a person like that and a person who wants to eliminate library funding because libraries are obsolete because they never use libraries. It’s just a more extreme version of a particular kind of foolishness.
Since it’s a ridiculous suggestion, we might also point out that showing a film and burning down libraries aren’t exactly the same things. If you’re in a burning library, you’re forced to do something. If you don’t want to view the film, don’t go to the presentation.
But that’s not enough for some people. They want to remove it from the conference so that other people can’t view and discuss the film together at ALA.
Is that “censorship”? Absolutely not. But it’s definitely a small group trying to suppress ideas and discussions they don’t like that are sponsored by several ALA groups. This isn’t some oddball suggestion for a panel. Lots of librarians want this to go on. Fighting it might not be censorship, but the censorship urge is definitely there.
America is about the last bastion of truly free speech, and that bothers a lot of people on the right and the left. The right doesn’t want porn or swearing on TV or whatever it is they’re opposed to these days.
The left doesn’t want racist speech or whatever it is those Westboro Baptist Church people get themselves up to.
If we were in Germany, we couldn’t deny the holocaust. If we were in Saudi Arabia, we couldn’t publicly criticize the government or Islam. If we were in Canada, we could get sued for saying that a publisher is little more than a vanity press and possibly lose.
The thing about limiting free speech is that once one offended group gets limits, then every offended group gets limits and nobody can say anything about anything. The people most vehemently against showing this film are among the people who’d be most harmed without free speech protections.
In America, we take a tougher stance, unless we’re on some university campuses. If you don’t like a film, don’t watch it. If you want to argue against it, go argue against it. If you think it’s offensive and the groups supporting it should be ashamed of themselves, go say so. There’s not a thing they can do to you.
If you’re offended, that’s the price of freedom. Or maybe you believe that you have a right not to be offended. I find that belief very offensive. And so it goes.