Meet the Authors

ala editions logo Words with Robert S. Peck, author of Libraries, Cyberspace, and the First Amendment
GraceAnne A. DeCandido

robert s. peck The subtitle of Robert Peck’s Libraries, the First Amendment, and Cyberspace is “What You Need to Know.” Attorney Peck, Senior Director for Legal Affairs and Policy Research for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and a past president of the Freedom to Read Foundation, offers librarians just that in this compact 216-page volume.

Peck’s book has two specific strengths: it is written in language that is clearly understandable, and it is a concise and thoughtful gathering of contemporary legal opinion on a variety of first amendment issues as they might have an impact on libraries. He includes numerous footnotes with citations to cases that will assist not only researchers but lawyers who may represent libraries.

The first chapter is worth the price of admission itself: it is a series of questions and answers about the First Amendment called “Sex, Lies, and Cyberspace.” He explains that the key words of the First Amendment, that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble” represents the minimum that each state’s laws and constitution must observe; that “law” here is a broad term that includes guidelines and other official statements; and defines the three exceptions to the rule: obscenity, fighting words, and libel.

Peck’s book, with energy and even a little humor, continues to offer tools for thinking. He discusses the development of First Amendment and free speech practice. He is refreshingly forthright when he untangles the meaning of “obscene” from the meaning of “indecent” and notes “Our right to free speech is not subject to any vote; it will not yield to community sentiment” (52). He continues: “the right to free speech cannot be subjected to limits based on contemporary public tastes . . . we rely on people, social pressures, and the concept of self-restraint to define the limits of appropriate expression” (70).

Other chapters discuss religion, library confidentiality, harassment, children and schools, and cyberspace. A series of appendixes add value: they include the Library Bill of Rights and various interpretations of same; policy on confidentiality of library records, considerations in developing a public library internet use policy, and how to conduct a hearing for challenged materials.

Word Is Out interviewed Bob Peck about Libraries, the First Amendment, and Cyberspace.

How did you, as a lawyer, get involved with libraries and First Amendment issues?

RP: Early on in my career as a constitutional lawyer, I realized that libraries were on the front line of the battles over free expression. While popular opinion had made newspaper censorship unthinkable, people had not realized that the same principles applied to the public library. When I was putting together a national education program about the Constitution for the American Bar Association, I recruited ALA to be part of it. I was happy, in turn, to be recruited to become active in the Freedom to Read Foundation. As a member of its board, I enjoyed an opportunity to work directly public and school libraries on First Amendment issues.

You spend a lot of time separating words that the public tends to muddle together; obscenity, pornography, indecency, nudity, and most especially, child pornography. How can we keep those words clear so we can discuss the issues?

RP: In short, it is critical to understand that obscenity and child pornography have particular legal meaning. The law does not use pornography, nudity and obscenity interchangeably, even if those who engage in public debate often do. Sexual expression has been a part of literature and art from the very beginning. Since no principled distinction can be drawn between a Rubens nude and a more modern photograph (or a classic Greek tragedy and a trashy romance novel), nudity or pornography cannot be the measure of whether something is protected as free speech or not. Long historical experience teaches us that we cannot entrust government officials with the authority to become the “taste police,” deciding what art ought to be protected.

You write, and remind us, that “obscenity and child pornography on the Internet are illegal.” Given the popular habit of conflating “obscenity” with anything people find abhorrent themselves, how can we defuse the emotional cloud over this?

RP: I wish I had an answer to this question. Words are sometimes imperfect tools for conveying complex ideas. If the public disdains obscenity, then those who want to provoke disgust about something will call it obscene. For example, people describe war as obscene; yet, it would be ridiculous to believe that a novel that graphically describes the horrors of war might be banned because obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. We cannot hope to stop partisans from invoking words to further their purposes, no matter how inappropriate. We must instead rely on the “genius of the people,” to use James Madison’s felicitous phrase, to realize the dangers lurking behind appeals for censorship.

You remind us that fear breeds great evils, quoting Justice Louis Brandeis, “Men feared witches and burned women.” There is a segment of society that fears and loathes free speech, finding in it all manner of terrible consequences. Libraries need to have “something to offend everyone” if their mandate to the open marketplace of ideas is to hold. How can libraries help dissipate such fears?

RP: In 1671, Virginia’s governor, Sir William Berkeley, praised the lack of printing presses in that colony as a protection against “disobedience, and heresy.” He realized, much like purveyors of fear today, that the divulgence of information and the dissemination of new ideas threatened the status quo. Those who cling to rigid ideas, unwilling to have them tested by competing notions, will always oppose certain materials that they see as a threat to their way of life. What they fail to realize is that free speech is neither a liberal nor a conservative idea. For that reason, people of all ideological stripes find something offensive in material of one kind or another. If, however, a library is going to serve its community, it cannot eschew material because it offends someone, but must strive instead to include all sides of public issues in its collections. The whole idea behind the “marketplace of ideas” created by freedom of speech is to allow people to sample a vast range of opinions and arguments—and allow people to make their own decisions which ideas to accept and which to discard. After all, even those who oppose a particular idea need to understand that idea if they hope to win the contest for popular support.

On the Web

Office for Intellectual Freedom opening page

Freedom to Read Foundation

First Amendment Cyber-Tribune, by Charles Levendosky

GraceAnne A. DeCandido, MLS, spent ten years in libraries and twelve in library publishing before setting up her own firm, Blue Roses Editorial & Web Consulting, in New York.  Credits.