March 18, 2018

Questioning Authority

By John N. Berry III, Editor-in-Chief

Our mission is to help citizens make fully informed decisions

on this editorial

‘.to secure these rights,
Governments are instituted among Men.’ With that succinct definition of the purpose and scope of government, Thomas Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries declared our independence. The document goes on to instruct us that if the government becomes ‘destructive of these ends it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.’ So it is not ‘disloyal’ or ‘treason’ to resist encroachments on our rights, even in times of ‘war.’ Indeed, it is disloyal and treasonous not to resist those
encroachments. Sometimes, we must question authority.

This issue of LJ carries
Mary Minow’s fine assessment of the legal workings of the USA PATRIOT Act (p.
52) and Karen Coyle’s excellent practical advice on protecting patron
(p. 55). It also carries Paula Kaufman’s eloquent appeal
to librarians to resist government efforts to limit our freedom of inquiry and our right to privacy (p. 57). These articles are the latest in a long tradition of library resistance to threats to the key freedoms to be informed and to inform. That tradition is the most important core value of librarianship and the basis upon which libraries were created; its roots lie in the founding of our nation.

When the new government was organized through the adoption of a Constitution, it immediately added a Bill of Rights, ten amendments to specify some of the rights that Jefferson said it was the purpose of government to secure. The very first directions to the new government were the admonitions in Amendment 1:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Judicial precedent, legal interpretation, and practice have extended those First Amendment freedoms to include a right to individual privacy, along with a broad right to know and to be informed about events and especially about the workings of the government.

Now we face new dangers to our nation, our people, and our libraries and librarians. Now we are told that to protect ourselves we must surrender some of our rights to be informed, particularly those about the operations of our governing bodies. We are told that we must sacrifice some of our privacy in communicating with each other, or searching for information in our libraries and on the Internet.

We all recognize the need to protect our society from enemies. We all concede to our government certain new methods, including the need to keep sensitive information from us in order to keep it from our adversaries. However, as librarians our main mission is to inform our democracy, to help all people make knowledgeable decisions about how to participate in society. In that role we must diligently ensure a proper balance between our right to access information and our government’s need for stealth. At the same time we must try to protect our patrons’ right to privacy as they seek the information they need.

This is not easy work. Some will call us disloyal, or worse. We have survived such labels before, such as when Sen. Joseph McCarthy employed them or when we asked for details of our country’s involvement in Vietnam. Our nation and our libraries survived those times and those misnomers. We even managed to play a significant role in enlightening people about communism, McCarthy, and that war in Southeast Asia. We should take a measure of pride in our long tradition supporting freedom of information and in our efforts to empower our citizens to use all our resources in private, undisrupted inquiry.

As librarians and as citizens it is our duty to work to protect these freedoms. Sometimes that will mean enduring difficult confrontations. Sometimes it will mean questioning authority.