April 23, 2018

Net Neutrality Concerns Spark Criticism of ALA Madison Award Pick

On March 9 the American Library Association (ALA) Washington Office (WO) announced the recipients of its annual James Madison Award, given to “individuals or groups who have championed, protected and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know at the national level.” However, this year’s choice, of U.S. Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Mike Quigley (D-IL)—recognized for their work as cofounders and cochairs of the bipartisan Congressional Transparency Caucus—has drawn fire because of Issa’s opposition to net neutrality and other issues that, critics say, run counter to ALA’s stated Code of Ethics.

At an event livestreamed from Washington, DC, to kick off National Sunshine Week, ALA president Jim Neal presented the award to Issa and Quigley. In addition to cofounding the Transparency Caucus, the two have introduced legislation and advocated for initiatives supporting transparency and access. These include two bills introduced by Issa, the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] Oversight and Implementation Act of 2016, enacted that year, and the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, introduced in 2013 and enacted in 2014, as well as the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act.

The Internet response to the announcement was swift and, for the most part, critical. On Facebook, Twitter, and WO’s District Dispatch, commenters criticized the selection of Issa, citing his long-running fight against net neutrality.

In 2011, Issa introduced the Research Works Act, which prohibited open access (OA) mandates for federally funded research. After publisher Elsevier withdrew its support for the act in 2012 in the wake of a call for a boycott from OA advocates, Issa and his cosponsor Carolyn Maloney declared they would not push for action and the bill was declared dead. He also cosponsored the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) in 2011, which would have allowed the federal government to share Internet traffic information.

In addition Issa, the cofounder of a San Diego electronics company, spoke out against the FCC’s net neutrality vote in 2015. “It is incredible to me that anybody would suggest with a straight face that turning the reins of the Internet over to the government will somehow lead to increased freedom and flexibility,” Issa stated in response to the vote to classify fixed and mobile broadband as a telecommunications service. “Competition in private industry drives prices down. Government regulation ensures a lack of innovation.”

And although he is on record as a supporter of online privacy, including helping to draft the Digital Citizens Bill of Rights in 2012, in March 2017 Issa voted to overturn Obama-era FCC Internet privacy protections. The resolution, had it passed, would have allowed Internet service providers to share customers’ browser history with third parties.

Issa has also led efforts to defund the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and opposes state sanctuary laws.

A UNIQUE ALA AWARD

The award, named for the fourth president of the United States, was established in 1989 by the ALA-led Coalition for Government Information, an ad-hoc committee formed in 1985 by then-ALA president E.J. Josey. The coalition folded in the mid-’90s, but the award was continued through the WO; a 1999 memo from ALA then-president-elect Nancy Kranich made it official. The formal motion, moved by Kranich and seconded by ALA’s then-immediate-past-president Ann Symons, was that “the Executive Board endorse the administration of the James Madison Award through the American Library Association via our Washington Office and the Committee on Legislation.”

At the time, members of ALA’s Executive Board, including current president Neal, expressed concerns that this would move the nomination and award “outside of our standard awards policy and process.” But because the Madison was an unfunded award, with costs paid through the WO budget, Kranich’s motion held.

Since 2000, the Madison Award has been presented on Freedom of Information Day, which occurs on or near March 16, James Madison’s birthday. It has gone to a wide range of access advocates, from philanthropist George Soros in 1997 to a posthumous award to information activist Aaron Swartz in 2013, and has included members of Congress from both parties. The winner receives a commemorative plaque that costs ALA an estimated $150; there is no monetary prize, nor is the award considered an endorsement. The most recent recipient, in 2017, was Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), honored for his advocacy for public access to government information.

The Eileen Cooke Award, honoring individuals or groups “that have championed access to government information and the public’s right to know,” is issued at the same time; this year it was given to Florida’s First Amendment Foundation.

Neal responded on District Dispatch and Twitter on March 10, noting that nominations were reviewed and selected by staff at the WO rather than an ALA member committee. According to Neal, WO staff also sought further input from ALA members in Florida, Illinois, and California who were not named.

The comments continued, including several from ALA members in the above-mentioned states asking which of their members were consulted. At least one commenter spoke up for Issa’s work promoting literacy in education, but as another noted, “Cherry picking one or two items when [Issa’s] tenure has been consistently counter to our values is lazy at best, and actively damaging to our approach to policy.”

Jason Griffey, Berkman Klein Affiliate Fellow at Harvard University and a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker, wrote on Twitter, “Consider me well and truly baffled here, @ALALibrary. @DarrellIssa does not stand for library values.”

A number of commenters on Twitter mentioned that the award would cause them to reconsider renewing their ALA memberships.

“I felt that someone was not looking at this award holistically,” Vermont librarian and technologist Jessamyn West told LJ.

Kevin Seeber, first year teaching and learning librarian at Auraria Library in Denver, wrote in a blog post that he felt this represents a disconnect between ALA leadership and the WO. For Seeber, this event recalled the frustrations expressed when ALA issued its press release after the 2016 presidential election stating that it would “work with President-elect Trump, his transition team, incoming administration and members of Congress.” ALA quickly rescinded the press release and then president Julie Todaro issued a message to members recommitting to the organization’s values.

However, Seeber also added that he doesn’t feel this is necessarily a misstep on the part of the WO, whose job is to be ALA’s lobbying arm and to represent libraries on Capitol Hill: “They lobby for money and policies that benefit libraries (especially funding IMLS), which I acknowledge has to involve working with members of both major parties in Congress, as well as the White House. Recognizing a prominent Republican like Issa with an award is probably a good move, in that it shows pragmatism in the face of the current political reality.”

AN UPDATE FROM ALA

On March 20, ALA posted a second update on District Dispatch linking to a history of the award and its process. The statement reads, in part, “It…seems clear that the final selection has historically been made by ALA Washington Office staff, with input from the ALA Committee on Legislation or an appropriate subcommittee. Given the relatively informal nature of the process and scant documentation, it seems likely that the nature and extent of interaction between staff and members varied.”

During the 2017 award process, according to the report, Todaro requested that the president be provided with information on all “Sunshine Week” activities, including the Madison Award. Inquiries at the time, the report stated, suggested that the previous WO associate executive director had selected the awardee—Sen. Tester—with WO staff participation. There has been turnover within WO staff over the past year; new staff have acted based on “the minimal documentation they had” indicating that they were tasked with choosing the award winner.

An invitation to nominate for the 2018 award was circulated in December 2017; the nomination period closed on January 22. During that time, Rep. Issa announced that he would not run for reelection.

Nominations received included Rep. Quigley. Because of Quigley and Issa’s cochairmanship of the bipartisan Congressional Transparency Caucus, and Issa’s announced retirement, WO staff chose to honor the two jointly; Issa himself was never nominated. No concerns were raised by colleagues whom the WO reached out to during the award process, and the recipients were chosen on February 2.

“That documentation has already been updated—and will be further augmented as a result of this review process,” the update stated, “particularly the work of the Committee on Organization and the ALA Awards Committee. In addition, related documentation has been connected to this file, emphasizing that awards should seek to avoid being construed as ‘political speech’ in line with ALA’s tax status and nonpartisan constitution.”

In addition, this and other recognitions or awards currently handled outside of standard ALA practice will be suspended pending review and definition of the appropriate award process. The ALA Committee on Organization has been asked to review the award and make recommendations as to an appropriate process for member engagement in the decision-making going forward.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. An award moratorium over political correctness. What a disgrace. You’re supposed to be a library association, not The Resistance. You can’t even have free speech within your own ranks.

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