Intellectual Freedom

the state of america's libraries 2011: a report from the american libary association

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Book removal sparks controversy and more challenges in Missouri schools

Despite the efforts of a group of concerned citizens in Stockton, Mo., the Stockton R-1 School Board voted last fall to ban Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” from both the high school curriculum and the library. Complaints leveled against this National Book Award–winning young-adult novel focused on profanity and sexual content, with the board judging it to be “pervasively vulgar” for some students. The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) supported the community members who protested the book’s removal –– OIF Deputy Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone even traveled to Stockton to attend the September hearing in person –– and also partnered with other national free-speech groups to urge the school board to reverse its decision.

The controversy in Stockton also triggered an outbreak of challenges to other books in the region. Shortly after the Stockton decision, several titles were challenged at a school in nearby Republic, Mo., ranging from textbooks to the novels “Speak,” by Laurie Halse Anderson, “Twenty Boy Summer” , by Sarah Ockler and “Slaughterhouse Five,” by Kurt Vonnegut. Anderson and Ockler –– along with a community of librarians, teachers and readers –– helped mobilize an online protest that developed into the “Speak Loudly” anti-censorship campaign. This outpouring of support led directly into Banned Books Week 2010 and its message, “Think for yourself and let others do the same.”

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Thousands rally nationwide to celebrate freedom to read

Libraries and bookstores nationwide battled censorship and celebrated the freedom to read during Banned Books Week, Sept. 25–Oct. 2, 2010, with thousands of people at rallies reading from banned or challenged books and discussing the impact censorship has on civil liberties.

Each year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom receives hundreds of reports on book challenges, which are formal written requests to remove a book from a library or classroom because of an objection to the book’s content. There have been more than 11,000 attempts recorded since the OIF began compiling information on book challenges in 1990.

“Not every book is right for each reader,” said ALA President Roberta Stevens, “but we should have the right to think for ourselves and allow others to do the same.

“The founders of this nation protected freedom of expression based on their conviction that a diversity of views and ideas is necessary for a vital, functioning democracy,” Stevens said. “Danger does not arise from viewpoints other than our own; the danger lies in allowing others to decide for us and our communities which reading materials are appropriate.”

This is the OIF’s Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books for 2010:

  1. “And Tango Makes Three” –– Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson.
  2. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” –– Sherman Alexie.
  3. “Brave New World” –– Aldous Huxley.
  4. “Crank” –– Ellen Hopkins.
  5. “The Hunger Games” –– Suzanne Collins.
  6. “Lush “–– Natasha Friend.
  7. “What My Mother Doesn’t Know” –– Sonya Sones.
  8. “Nickel and Dimed” –– Barbara Ehrenreich.
  9. “Revolutionary Voices” –– edited by Amy Sonnie.
  10. “Twilight” –– Stephenie Meyer.

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"Revolutionary Voices" stilled in New Jersey school and public libraries

A complaint from a resident of Burlington County, N.J., led to the removal of a critically acclaimed anthology written by young people, for young people, from both the high school and public libraries last summer. “Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology,” named as one of the best adult books for high school students by School Library Journal in 2001, was banned from the Rancocas Valley Regional High School in May and from the Burlington County Library System in July. The complaint came from a local member of Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project, who called the book “pervasively vulgar, obscene, and inappropriate.” (The removal of this book from both school and public libraries was particularly significant because the book is out of print and usually sells for more than $50.)

The OIF worked closely with Rancocas Valley school librarian Dee Venuto in opposing the ban, and the controversy inspired local artists to stage a series of theatrical readings from Revolutionary Voices, drawing attention to the book’s removal and to the strong community of free-speech advocates who opposed the libraries’ decisions.

Whatever the challenges, freedom-to-read boosters could take heart in the vociferous public disapproval expressed when WikiLeaks’ release of diplomatic cables in late 2010 led the Library of Congress to block the WikiLeaks site for LC staff as well as patrons.

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Alliance Defense Fund targets library meeting-room policies

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Christian-rights legal organization, initiated a letter-writing campaign to libraries and schools around the country that targeted library policies that restrict the use of libraries’ meeting rooms for religious services. The ADF advised recipients that it believes their meeting-room policy is unconstitutional and that it would initiate legal action if the library did not change its policy.

The OIF responded by providing librarians and library trustees with answers to their questions about meeting-room policies and the ADF’s letter, including copies of model meeting-room policies, information about relevant court opinions and advice on reviewing and revising meeting-room policies in light of recommended best practices. (For more on religion and public libraries, see “ Religion in American Libraries: Questions and Answers,” a new document by the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee.

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Libraries celebrate first-ever Choose Privacy Week

As Americans grappled with privacy issues such as the use of body scanners at airports, hacked databases and involuntary disclosure for users of some online services, the OIF launched Choose Privacy Week, a national education and outreach campaign encouraging libraries to host conversations on privacy issues in their communities. OIF Director Barbara Jones noted that as people share more of their personal details, privacy becomes more commodity than absolute right. “Facebook, for example, is a great social communication tool, but there are compromises and trade-offs with it,” Jones said. Libraries around the country participated in the inaugural Choose Privacy Week, held May 2-8, 2010, by hosting events, mounting displays, sharing information online, and finding other ways to engage their users. The ALA developed print and online resources –– including a video that was viewed online more than 18,000 times –– for libraries to introduce and generate dialogue about privacy issues.

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ACLU and Yale challenge LGBT website filtering in high schools

The American Civil Liberties Union and Yale Law School’s LGBT Litigation Clinic have teamed up to confront unconstitutional Internet filtering at public high schools nationwide. The groups have launched a campaign called “Don’t Filter Me,” which asks high school students to log on to certain websites with gay, lesbian bisexual, and transgender content to see if those sites are blocked by their schools. The ACLU is asking students to report any censorship of these sites.

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Library of Congress action on WikiLeaks provokes sharp reaction

Reaction poured in from all over the world after the Library of Congress confirmed on Dec. 3, 2010, that it was blocking access from all LC computers to the WikiLeaks website in order to prevent unauthorized downloading of classified records. The move was ordered by the Office of Management and Budget and affected other federal government departments as well as the LC. It came after WikiLeaks released classified diplomatic cables in November. Within a week, the LC posting had garnered more than 150 responses, many from commenters self-identifying as librarians. Some quoted the First Amendment or the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights in condemning the website ban. “What next?” chided one commenter. “Will LC pull the Pentagon Papers from the stacks and burn them with all the other banned books in a bonfire in the main reading room?”

The LC action was a hot topic at the ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in January, and the ALA Council passed a resolution that, while not mentioning WikiLeaks, defended the principle of public access to government information. (The ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee said the resolution was crafted “to focus on the larger issues of classification, whistleblowing, and access to government information rather than limiting our concerns to one group.”)

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Officials back off, and “Sicko”wins a screening

In January, the Enfield (Conn.) Public Library, threatened with loss of library funding from its Town Council and mayor, canceled a screening of Michael Moore’s documentary “Sicko” in the library –– but after vigorous debate and strong statements of intellectual freedom principles, notably from the Connecticut Library Association, town officials allowed the film to be shown after all. ALA President Roberta Stevens said she was delighted at their decision. “Public libraries exist as forums for ideas,” she said. “When people find materials or events they disagree with or dislike in libraries, they are free to avoid those resources, or to choose others that are more appropriate for themselves and their families. But attempts to restrict access for others threaten the core values that enable us as Americans to live in a free society.”

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“Quran read-out” a statement to the world

Responding to threats by the head of a small church in Gainesville, Fla., that he planned to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11, 2010, Barbara Jones, director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, and others staged a “ Quran read-out” at ALA headquarters in Chicago. The event was conceived as a protest of the proposed action by the Rev. Terry Jones and ended up as a statement to the world that librarians value reading, learning and tolerance over book-burning, fear, and ignorance. Jones made her statement to about 50 people who showed up for the event, which featured readings from the Quran by American Libraries Editor Leonard Kniffel; Gerald Hankerson, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; and Kiran Ansari, of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. The Gainesville church leader later burned a copy of the Qur’an which led to violence in Afghanistan.

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Librarians support prisoners’ right to read

Being behind bars should not bar one from reading, the ALA asserted in 2010 with the adoption by the ALA Council of “ Prisoners’ Right to Read: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.” The document asserts the ALA’s support for incarcerated individuals’ right to choose and read a full range of library resources for information, education, recreation and self-improvement and addresses a need for guidance on intellectual freedom in prison libraries. In the past, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has taken actions such as the Standardized Chapel Library Project, which burdened prisoners’ First Amendment right to receive information and exercise religious freedoms by requiring the removal of library materials that did not fall within a narrowly defined class of approved religious materials.

The “Prisoners’ Right to Read” interpretation is intended to help correctional-facility librarians in their efforts to provide prisoners with the widest possible access to materials. As the document states, “Learning to be free requires access to a wide range of knowledge, and suppression of ideas does not prepare the incarcerated of any age for life in a free society,” the document says. “Even those individuals that a lawful society chooses to imprison permanently deserve access to information, to literature, and to a window on the world.”

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