Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Controversial Speakers

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.



  1. Nice write up, AL. I am confused by the back and forth going on, some of it really nasty, so you helped explain things. And you raise a point you’ve raised well before, so I linked it below.

    I’ll say this. Robert Spencer of JihadWatch was invited by ALA EMIERT along with a number of Muslim speakers to speak on a certain topic. The Muslim speakers, acting on behalf of the terrorist Hamas group called CAIR, this one from Illinois, insisted ALA had committed a grave error by inviting a supposedly vicious “Islamophobe,” you know, the kind who reports the truth and the jihadists can’t stand that anyone should hear the truth. Guess what ALA did. It realized the error of its ways then discussed how to censor Mr. Spencer and hide the censorship. Mr. Spencer never spoke. A lawsuit resulted, if I recall correctly. To this day ALA has not invited Mr. Spencer to anything further.

    But I’m sure none of this surprises anybody. And I’m sure Mr. Spencer will not be discussed at a meeting about disinviting speakers. The meeting on “The Speaker” is great, but it’s another whitewash if nobody addresses the problem ALA has with censorship and when Robert Spencer will finally be invited back to speak.

    See the link under my name.

    See also, “Library Association Abandons Principle, Allows Censorship,” by Muslims Against Sharia, Muslims Against Sharia, 22 July 2009:

    See also AL herself in Library Journal, “We Support Free Speech, But…”:

    • The Librarian With No Name says:

      Three things: First, the Council for American-Islamic Relations is neither a terrorist group nor synonymous with Hamas. Their links with Hamas are inside the Kevin Bacon radius, but there are enough degrees of separation that they would be easily ignored if they represented a more popular segment of the population. Witness, for example, sitting congressman and possible presidential candidate Peter King’s active decades-long support of actual terrorist group the IRA.

      Second, Robert Spencer is indeed opposed to jihadists, and he plays it safe by assuming that all one billion Muslims on Earth are jihadists. He has said repeatedly that Islam has not been hijacked by extremists, but is an inherently violent religion which must be opposed. He is an idiot and a bigot of the most virulent kind, and we as a society should be ashamed of producing him.

      Third, you’re absolutely right. The ALA was not upholding the principles of free speech that they preach. Disinviting a hateful idiot because you suddenly realized he’s a hateful idiot is really not classy when your high horse is all about protecting unpopular speech, but disinviting a hateful idiot because people are yelling at you is just sad. If they’re not going to be banning Spencer’s appallingly racist yet high-circulating Politically Correct Guides from library shelves, they should have stood by their guns.

      In summary: good point, but your presentation

    • The Librarian With No Name says:

      I suppose that’s what I get for rattling on. In re-summary: good point, but your presentation is vaguely unsettling.

    • @The Librarian With No Name: My presentation is irrelevant. Here’s ALA getting really nasty about free speech not being free if someone disagrees with or hates the messenger, and AL is writing about it since it is so noticeable (within the librarian community), and you exemplify the very issue she is raising. You completely mischaracterize a speaker, evidence your own hate, then suggest such a speaker should never be allowed to speak. Thanks for agreeing with my point regarding ALA’s selective free speech and censorship claims, but the issue is not my presentation nor your hate. Rather, it is ALA needs to invite Robert Spencer to speak or all this paroxysm over “The Speaker” and free speech is just to give the appearance of interest in supporting free speech, not actually practicing it.

      Isn’t the solution to speech you don’t like more speech, not censorship? Yes, I know you agree with that. Now ALA needs to show it supports free speech, not just talk about its support for free speech.

      And CAIR is what it is. By the way, one thing it supports is the suppression of free speech. Sometimes it not only supports the suppression of speech, but it is the suppressor itself. And at least in one case, ALA acted as the tool to carry out that censorship.

      Look, CAIR does what it does and that’s one thing, but ALA allowing the suppression of speech is another, as you noted and agreed with me. ALA is an organization that claims public libraries cannot block child porn without first getting a court order because that would violate free speech, but when it comes to its own activities, it censors anyone it wishes.

      Did you hear the author of the Children’s Internet Protection Act detailed how ALA misleads a third of American libraries into allowing unfiltered porn despite the law? No. ALA censored that out of its American Libraries magazine. Actually, it simply selected not to include it. (Ditto for Library Journal, only then EIC Francine Fialkoff mocked CIPA’s author and refused to publish what he wrote despite library filters being one of the biggest library stories there is.)

      If ALA wants to be authoritative on free speech, it needs to practice free speech, not suppress it.

    • Way Barra says:

      “My presentation is irrelevant.” – A Nationally Recognized Spokesperson

    • @Way Barra, cute but true. None of us are the issue. The issue is ALA, the self-arrogated censorship police, regularly uses censorship to advance an agenda. That’s way, for example, AL writes about it from time to time here at LJ. Were it not for AL at LJ, we likely would never hear of these issues.

    • “My presentation is irrelevant.”

      No it isn’t irrelevant. In fact the first thing you learn in library school is to read the language and evaluate the source. Instead of simply framing the conversation as “Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch” and the Council of Islamic American Relations you tried to link the latter to a terrorist group and called the former a “reporter of the truth”.

      You were so obviously biased in your presentation that it made it difficult to take anything else you said seriously. Then you respond to a perfectly measured response from TLWNN by accusing them of “hate”. Look in the mirror.

  2. Patricia Glass Schuman says:

    I am rather surprised that you overlooked the fact that many of us who have commented — far from asking that the discussion or showings of the film not happen — have instead urged the sponsoring groups to add Library Journal’s John Berry to the panel discussing the film. John was there.. He covered the issue extensively. We feel that it is important that an accurate view of the history, as well as well as current perspectives, should be a part of the platform presentation.

  3. noutopianlibrarian says:

    @The Librarian with no name: “Disinviting a hateful idiot…” Little proclaims ignorance more surely than casual ad hominems. @Dan Kleinman of SafeLibraries: “ALA is an organization that claims public libraries cannot block child porn without first getting a court order because that would violate free speech…” Can’t miss an opportunity to mischaracterize an organization as slanderously as possible, can we?

    Regarding Islam as “…an inherently violent religion…”: most religions have historically as well as currently incite violent tendencies in their followers – it is an *inherent* part of their cultural role in providing a protective tribal identity and insuring conformity to often illogical tenets. This doesn’t mean that Islam is inherently any more violent than Christianity, or Judaism, or Hinduism, or Sikhism, or ancient pagan religions – they all have incredibly bloody histories, and for the larger sects-their followers continue to be implicated each and every day somewhere in horrible incidents toward non-believers and heretics proclaiming some tenet of their faith as a basis for those acts. Regardless of individual violent tendencies, a preponderance of religious followers of whatever flavor harbor distinct biases toward non-followers that “flavor” human cultures in manifold respects.

    This has served historically humanity more or less well as it provided a means to unify for self-protection. Reason has been supplanting these superstitions over the last several centuries though, seeping into the consciousness of more enlightened followers of religious beliefs in a gradual, but (hopefully) inexhorable process. If ALA is to be representative of reason as a basis of understanding and discourse, rather than beholden to mythologies, it would resist suppression of perspectives unpopular among religious adherents. That said, because of the violent tendencies on the part of some religious adherents, well-represented on a demonstrably frequent basis among all of the predominant religious sects in the United States and elsewhere, buttressed immeasurably by the political power exercised by these various followers toward others, it is somewhat treacherous for ALA, or indeed anyone (myself included – I’m well aware!) to wade into issues considered offensive to these practices. If reason be damned -then the ad hominems and religious sensibilities will continue to prevail.

  4. Cut Both Ways says:

    Did anyone else see the headline and references to the 1970s and think this was about Stephen Abram and the “Jane, you ignorant slut” reference?

    • jessamyn says:

      Totally what I thought (and was sort of hoping) this was going to be about.

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