The Censor: Motives and Tactics

From the Intellectual Freedom Manual (6th, Office for Intellectual Freedom, ALA, Chicago, IL, 2002, pp. 366–369.)

The term censor often evokes the mental picture of an irrational, belligerent individual. Such a picture, however, is misleading. In most cases, the one to bring a complaint to the library is a concerned parent or a citizen sincerely interested in the future wellbeing of the community. Although complainants may not have a broad knowledge of literature or of the principles of freedom of expression, their motives in questioning a book or other library material are seldom unusual. Any number of reasons are given for recommending that certain material be removed from the library. Complainants may believe that the materials will corrupt children and adolescents, offend the sensitive or unwary reader, or undermine basic values and beliefs. Sometimes, for these reasons, they may argue that the materials are of no interest or value to the community.

Although an attempt to stereotype the censor would be unfair, one generalization can be made: regardless of specific motives, all would-be censors share one belief-that they can recognize "evil" and that other people must be protected from it. Censors do not necessarily believe their own morals should be protected, but they do feel compelled to save their fellows.

Why Censorship?

In general, there are four basic motivational factors that may lie behind a censor's actions. The four motivations are by no means mutually exclusive; indeed, they often merge, both in outward appearance and in the censor's mind.

Family values. In some cases, the censor may feel threatened by changes in the accepted, traditional way of life. Changes in attitudes toward the family and related customs are naturally reflected in library materials. Explicitly sexual works in particular are. often viewed as obvious causes of repeated deviation from the norm. Because they challenge values, censors may want to protect children from exposure to works dealing frankly with sexual topics and themes.

Religion. The censor may also view explicitly sexual works and politically unorthodox ideas as attacks on religious faith. Antireligious works, or materials that the censor considers damaging to religious beliefs, cause concern about a society many see as becoming more and more hostile to religious training, and these works buttress beliefs about society's steady disintegration.

Political views. Changes in the political structure can be equally threatening. The censor may view a work that advocates radical change as subversive. (The fact that such works have been seen as attacking basic values is confirmed by the number of attempts to label library materials with such broad terms as "communistic," "un-American," or "ungodly.") If these works also contain less than polite language, it will not be difficult for the censor to formulate an attack on the grounds of obscenity in addition to-- and sometimes to cover up-- objections on political grounds.

Minority rights. Of course, not all censors are interested in preserving traditional social order. The conservative censor has been joined by groups who want their own special group values recognized. For example, ethnic minorities and women struggling against long-established stereotypes are anxious to reject materials viewed as perpetuating those stereotypes. These groups too may use the devices of the censor.

Whatever the censor's motives, attempts to suppress certain library materials may also stem from a confused understanding of the role of the library and of the rights of other library users. The censor's concern about library materials is based upon a view of the library as an important social institution. But the censor may fail to see that the library fulfills its obligations to the community it serves by providing materials presenting all points of view and that it is not the function of the library to screen materials according to arbitrary standards of acceptability. Would-be censors may think that it is the role of the library to support certain values or causes-which are, of course, their values and their causes.

In the United States, under the First Amendment, no citizen and no librarian can properly assume the duty or right to restrict or suppress legally protected expressions of ideas. The censor may not understand that a request that certain works be labeled or restricted, if fulfilled, would lead to an abridgment of the rights of other library users.

The Censor in Action

A censorship incident usually begins with a library user's complaint about specific library materials. In general, the immediate aim of the complainant is to inform the library that the materials in question are unacceptable. In some cases, the complainant may assume that the library will immediately agree that the materials are not appropriate and should not be in the library.

The censor may want to state publicly that he has found "'objectionable" materials in the library and may attend a meeting of the library board to announce his "'discovery." Those sections of the work that are considered especially offensive may be read aloud or distributed in writing to the library board, the local press, and the public. The censor may also go one step further and organize an ad hoc censorship organization. Even if an ad hoc group is loosely organized, the censors could use it effectively to promote a statement of purposes among other community groups, to conduct a letter-to-the-editor campaign, and to circulate petitions. The organization could also influence public funding, the appointment of the library director, and the appointment or election of library board members.

Although most censorship incidents begin with an objection to a specific work, if the censors are unsuccessful in getting the item banned, they may turn their efforts to library policy. If they cannot bring about a change in the library's policy on materials selection and distribution, they may then ask that the library establish a closed shelf or adopt a policy of restricted access.

Opposing the Censor

Well in advance of the appearance of the censor, a materials selection program, a procedure for handling complaints, and a public relations program will, of course, have been established. After the censor comes, censorship of library materials can be resisted by informing a number of key support sources: (1) community leaders and community organizations who would support the position of the library, (2) local news media whose editorial support would be valuable, (3) other librarians in the community and state whose support could then be available if needed, (4) the publisher of the challenged work who may have on file all its reviews and also may be interested in the legal questions raised by such practices as labeling and restricted access, (5) all library staff members and the governing board, (6) library's legal counsel, (7) the state library association's intellectual freedom committee, and (8) ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

A censorship attempt presents the library with a good opportunity to explain the philosophy of intellectual freedom that underlies library service in the United States. For example, the library should prepare an article for local newspapers, explaining the role of the library and its commitment to the Library Bill of Rights. The article can emphasize the importance of the freedom to read as established by the First Amendment.

It is important to keep in mind that not every attempt to resist censorship will be successful; in many instances, developments will take a discouraging turn. However, it is certain that if the library is not prepared to offer any resistance, no battle will be won. And every battle won will contribute to establishing the library as an institution for free citizens in an open society.