For immediate release | May 20, 2014

ALA members to discuss controversial film 'The Speaker' at Annual Conference

Controversial 1977 ALA film to be screened and is now available online for the first time

CHICAGO — The ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee and the Association of American Publishers will present a program on the controversial ALA-produced 1977 film “The Speaker ... A Film About Freedom” at the 2014 Annual Conference in Las Vegas. In addition, there will be two screenings of the film prior to the program as part of the “Now Showing at ALA” film series. The program, “Speaking about ‘The Speaker,’” is co-sponsored by the Black Caucus of the ALA and the Library History Round Table.

The film depicts a high school Current Events club that decides to invite a white supremacist professor from a local college to address the student body and the controversy that ensues. It was intended for schools, libraries and other organizations to encourage them to discuss the true meaning of the freedom of expression, particularly regarding “tolerance for ideas we detest.” Many ALA members objected to the film’s subject matter and the process by which the film was produced. After contentious debate at the 1977 Annual Conference, multiple ALA bodies voted down proposals to remove the organization’s name from the film.

Program participants will include Robert Wedgeworth, who was ALA executive director during the controversy; Beverly Lynch, a professor at UCLA who includes “The Speaker” in her library school instruction; and Mark McCallon, a librarian at Abilene Christian University, whose scholarship focuses on “The Speaker” controversy. Freedom to Read Foundation president Julius C. Jefferson, Jr. will moderate the panel and subsequent audience discussion.

“As past chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee and past member of the Executive Board of the Black Caucus of the ALA, I’ve long been interested in how the controversy around 'The Speaker' affected the association, and what lessons we can take from it," said Jefferson. "Rather than re-open old wounds, I hope the program will allow us to reflect on ALA’s history and future. I look forward to a thoughtful discussion of how the issues that dominated the Detroit conference—of race and culture, intellectual freedom and social responsibility, process and organization—still affect us today.”

In addition to the screenings, the film for the first time has been posted online, thanks to the ALA Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It can be viewed at Additionally, the 1977 Discussion Guide that was included with the film is available as a PDF on the ALA Conference Scheduler Also posted are several pages from the American Libraries July/August 1977 cover story that provide an excellent overview of the Detroit conference.

Barbara Jones, director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, said she has received requests from many younger ALA members over recent years who want to understand what happened in 1977 and want to revisit the controversy with a 21st-century perspective. “I remember my first term paper at Columbia University’s School of Library Service (1977) was about ‘The Speaker’ controversy. It is an issue still with us today when it comes to speech that most of us hate to protect or endorse. We plan to give ALA membership ample opportunity to express their opinions about this issue before, during, and after the conference, because it is complex and important.”

"The debate over the limits of free speech has always been incendiary," said Judith Platt, director of free expression advocacy for the Association of American Publishers. "For those of us in the book community it is crucial to understand the history and context within which that debate has taken place. This program on 'The Speaker' and it's attendant controversy will provide an excellent forum to deepen our understanding."

The program will take place from 1 - 2:30 p.m. on Monday, June 30, in room N253 of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC). The film screenings will be at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 29, and at 8 a.m. on Monday, June 30, in LVCC room N242. Both screenings will be followed by a moderated audience discussion.


Jonathan Kelley

Program Officer

American Library Association