Intellectual Freedom

Two women at computer in library

NSA disclosures lead to more active focus on surveillance

In June 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked reports of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance activities—including the telephone records, emails, and other Internet activity of millions of U.S. citizens from companies such as Verizon, AT&T, Google, Facebook, and Yahoothe public experienced, up close and personal, the abstraction of “personal privacy” that the ALA has been monitoring and protecting for years. That public awareness led to an even more active focus on surveillance for the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) and the American Library Association Office of Government Relations. The OIF reports that its Choose Privacy Week website, programming, and videos are more in demand.

ALA offices had been working on these issues since the passage of the USA Patriot Act, in 2001; one conference program at the 2013 ALA Annual Conference was named “We Told You So” and featured Michael German, a former FBI agent and an expert on data mining and government surveillance programs.

The ALA continues to fight for expansion of whistleblower protection, the speeding up of government document declassification, and more government transparency and due process. The Choose Privacy Week website was updated in 2013 and includes videos such as “Data Mining, Government Surveillance, and Civil Liberties,” by German. The OIF has also made presentations—not only in the United States but around the world—on surveillance and the ALA response.

Ethnic studies under fire: ALA’s response

In 2013, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the ALA, and other groups such as Reforma (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking), the ALA Black Caucus, and the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association joined an amicus brief to object to the Tucson (Ariz.) school district’s dismantling of the Mexican-American Studies program in accordance with an Arizona state law. The brief was filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Arce v. Huppenthal, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state law, Arizona Revised Statute 15-112 (A). The brief argues that the statute that led to the disbanding of the program violates Arizona students’ First Amendment rights to receive information and is unconstitutionally overbroad.

“In submitting this brief, the Freedom to Read Foundation is standing up for the right of all Arizona students to a curriculum based on educational merit, not political motivation,” said Barbara M. Jones, director of the OIF and executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation. “Students in the [Mexican-American Studies] program improved their educational performance. And there is no evidence that those students learned ‘racial resentment’ or discovered an interest in ‘overthrowing the U.S. Government,’” as proponents of the law contended.

“Providing young people with access to a wide range of ideas, including those about different cultures, helps them to think critically, become better citizens, and succeed in family and workplace life,” Jones said. “Censoring ideas promotes ignorance and fear.”

Trends in fighting to maintain intellectual freedom

Jones sees a continuing trend of challenges to young-adult fiction, which is viewed by many as too “dark” and too involved with such issues as bullying, drugs, sex, and lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender characters.

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell, for example, caused problems in the Anoka (Minn.) High School Library after the book was chosen by the school district and the Anoka County Library for a voluntary summer reading program. A parent group demanded that it be removed, but a book review committee voted to retain the book. As Principal Mike Farley said: “I did enjoy the book. I deal with this stuff every day working in the school with students. Did I think the language was rough? Yes. There is some tough stuff in there, but a lot of the stuff our kids are dealing with is tough.”

A trend Jones considers every bit as insidious as book banning is the increased use of software filters on library terminals. Although research shows that filters don’t work well, librarians have been intimidated into installing them by government officials. In Illinois in 2013, in a highly publicized case at the Orland Park Public Library, a non-Orland Park political pressure group tried, through social media and other means, to force the library board to install filters on the adult terminals. ALA staff attended meetings and worked with the Orland Park librarians, and the board ultimately rejected adult terminal filters.

“We have noted in recent years the growth of organized challenges by groups such as, but not limited to, the Tea Party,” Jones says. “Groups from all parts of the political spectrum believe that removing a book from library shelves will somehow support their agenda.” It does not, she says, but it does create barriers to information to other members of the community who use the library.

“Social media has provided a two-edged sword,” Jones says. “On the one hand, it democratizes the public discourse by giving everyone an opportunity to have his/her voice heard. On the other hand, when used for political means, it can disrupt the public discourse and create confusion and factual errors.”

Invisible Man: Success story and case study

The challenge to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was but one of hundreds of book challenges the OIF records every year, but the 2013 challenge made the case for collaboration rather than confrontation. In the end, both sides saw the outcome as a success.

Ellison’s book won the National Book Award in 1953 and has been named by the Library of Congress as one of the “Books that Shaped America.” Nonetheless, in September 2013, a parent of a high school junior in Randolph County, North Carolina, complained about the sexual content in Invisible Man and asked that it be removed from a summer reading program. The school board voted to remove the book from the school library shelves—and the nationwide reaction caught the board members and the local newspaper by surprise.

The board reconsidered its decision, based mostly on the public outcry but also on persuasive communications such as a letter from the ALA. The candid comments from the board offer an important lesson on how to handle a book challenge. One member who changed his vote said: “I felt like I came to a conclusion too quickly.” Another: “We may have been hammered on this and we may have made a mistake, but at least we’re big enough to admit it.” Another: “My job is to make sure that book is there whether I want to read it or not.”

The most powerful came from a board member whose son had been in Air Force combat overseas, “fighting for those freedoms that I’m here passing a vote to take away. . . . Is that right of me? No.”

Split decision on Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

The chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools in 2013 reversed a directive  to pull Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, from CPS libraries but maintained that the book is not appropriate for seventh graders and should be removed from classrooms. Persepolis is an award-winning autobiographical graphic novel details the author’s life as a young girl living in Iran during the Iranian Revolution.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s reversal came amid criticisms and complaints from parents, teachers, students, and others about the decision, which was dictated in an email sent to schools  on March 14 ordering removal of all copies of the book from school libraries and classroom instruction by March 15.

“We have major problems with this book removal,” the Freedom to Read Foundation’s Jones said. “We believe that removing books from the hands of kids is chilling and is an act of censorship. It reflects the totalitarian society that this book is all about. . . . It does not reflect the democratic institution of learning that the Chicago Public Schools is supposed to be.”

Lynn Bruno, a Lane Technical High School student in the 451 Degrees book club, which protested the removal of Persepolis, won ALA recognition as a Banned Book Week Hero for his role in leading the student charges.

Banned Books Week features Virtual Read-Out of challenged books

Readers from across the United States and around the world demonstrated their support for free speech in 2013 by participating in a Virtual Read-Out of banned and challenged books during Banned Books Week, September 22–28, an annual ALA event designed to celebrate the freedom to read and to draw attention to the censorship of books in schools and libraries.

The Virtual Read-Out is the digital centerpiece of Banned Books Week, featuring individuals reading from their favorite banned or challenged book. Contributors are encouraged to share a reading, discuss the significance of their favorite banned book, or mention a local book challenge.

The event also served as the backdrop for the announcement of Banned Books Week Heroes, individuals and groups who have stood up to defend the freedom to read. The 2013 Heroes included Lynn Bruno, a Lane Tech Chicago high school student in the 451 Degrees book club, which protested the removal of Persepolis from the Chicago Public School curriculum.

Banned Books Week itself was the biggest success ever, according to the OIF. For the first time, the OIF participated in a Google Hangout sponsored by PEN America, with banned author Sherman Alexie. Then the OIF and the Freedom to Read Foundation sponsored Alexie’s performance at the Chicago Humanities Festival to a packed audience of his teenaged admirers.

And here’s the “Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books” of 2013, as compiled by the OIF from hundreds of recorded challenges:

  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
    Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence
  2. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violenc
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James
    Reasons: Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
    Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
  6. A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green Reasons:
    Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
    Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  9. Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
    Reasons: Occult/Satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  10. Bone (series), by Jeff Smith
    Reasons: Political viewpoint, racism, violence

Conference identifies “mission creep” in enforcement of CIPA

The OIF joined with the ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy to present a July conference, sponsored by Google, that explored the effects of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) on library access over the past 10 years. (CIPA requires that K-12 schools and libraries in the United States use Internet filters and implement other measures to protect children from harmful online content as a condition for the receipt of federal E-rate funding.) The conference brought together 30 experts from a variety of fields: librarianship, social science, civil liberties, policy analysis, and education.

The participants identified a systematic overreach in the implementation of CIPA that went far beyond the requirements and intent of the law and concluded that this “mission creep” stems from misinterpretations of the law, different perceptions of how to filter, and limitations of Internet filtering software.

The resultant over-filtering:

  • Blocks access to legitimate, educational resources while often failing to block the illegal, obscene, or “harmful-to-minors” images proscribed by the law.
  • Affects information access and learning opportunities for both children and adults.
  • Disproportionally affects those who can benefit from public Internet access the most: the 60 million Americans without access to either a home broadband connection or smartphone.

The major findings are reported in draft recommendations prepared for the ALA Midwinter Meeting in January, “Fencing Out Knowledge: Impacts of CIPA 10 Years Later (PDF),” which explores the impacts of filtering on K–12 education, public library users’ access to online information, and professional library practice.

An expert on censorship offers advice to library professionals

Valerie Nye, co-editor (with Kathy Barco) of True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries (ALA Editions, 2012), is familiar with many specific situations that have occurred in libraries related to material challenges and challenges to intellectual freedom. Many have resulted in librarians calling on professionals to:

  • Maintain a collection development policy and make sure all staff know about the policy.
  • Have a procedure in place for dealing with challenges—handle all complaints in the same way and in writing, and make sure all staff members know about the procedure.
  • Have a form that patrons can fill out when there is a challenge to material—and again, make sure all staff members know about the form.
  • Develop good relationships with local librarians, politicians, and the media so that when a challenge does arise, relationships are already in place that can provide support. (Developing a good relationship with the community in general is also important; educating the community about the role of libraries has dramatically reduced the number of challenges libraries experience.)

Nye and Barco also note a call “from librarians to librarians to think about self-censorship and the dangers that come when librarians are the people censoring material by not purchasing items and/or not cataloging items appropriately.”

Help for librarians and others is available in the ALA Intellectual Freedom Manual.


The State of America's Libraries 2014