Friday, September 25, 2009

Banned Books Week - an ALA Attempt to Shut You Up, to Censor You, to Bully Ordinary Citizens, to Thwart Parents, to Cry Censorship Where There is None

Finding Censorship Where There Is None,
by Mitchell Muncy,
Wall Street Journal,
24 September 2009,

'To you zealots and bigots and false patriots who live in fear of discourse. You screamers and banners and burners. . . ." These are the opening lines of the official Manifesto of Banned Books Week, which starts tomorrow. This annual "national celebration of the freedom to read" is led by the American Library Association (ALA) and co-sponsored by a number of professional associations and advocacy groups. Events and displays at "hundreds" of libraries and bookstores will "draw attention to the problem of censorship" in the U.S.

As the tone of the Manifesto suggests, the sponsors are more interested in confrontation than celebration. The Banned Books Week Readout in Chicago will feature "wildly successful" and "incredibly popular" authors who will "share their experiences as targets of censors." The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression has produced posters, based on a graphic-novel adaptation of "Fahrenheit 451," to help "publicize the hundreds of attacks on books that occur every year in the United States." The ALA has launched an online U.S. "censorship map" to show how pervasive the threat is.

In the common-law tradition, censorship refers specifically to the government's prior restraint on publication. None of the sponsors claim this has happened; the acts they have in mind are perpetrated by private citizens. Yet the cases on the map almost all involve ordinary people lodging complaints with school and library authorities. Before Banned Books Week began in 1982, such behavior was known as petitioning the government for a redress of grievances.

The problem of loose language aside, we can still ask whether books are banned in this country. The obvious answer is no, if banned means something like "made dangerous or difficult for the average person to obtain." ....


.... The ALA grants on its Web site that "most of the books featured during [Banned Books Week] were not banned."


More telling is that 80% of challenges—and all but one removal—took place at schools. The remaining 20% of challenges, brought at public libraries, all concerned the exposure of children to possibly inappropriate material. The Manifesto indirectly acknowledges this: "You say you're afraid for children . . . [but] ignorance is no armor." (Could we agree to censor stale imagery?)

What inflames the ALA, in other words, are attempts by parents to guide their children's education. ....

There's something odd about a national organization with a $54 million budget and 67,000 members reacting so zealously against a few unorganized, law-abiding parents whose efforts, by any sensible standard, are hopelessly ineffective. The ALA's members have immeasurably more power than the "censors" they denounce to decide what books are available in our communities, but this power is so familiar it's invisible. Why do parents' public petitions constitute censorship, while librarians' hidden verdicts do not? A spokesman for the ALA once tackled this question in the Boston Globe: "The selection criteria that librarians use may not always be what everybody wants. I don't see that it's a real problem." Move along, folks, nothing to see here.

The ALA repeatedly emphasizes that public and school libraries are "government bodies." Is Banned Books Week a celebration of free speech, or is it a way for government employees to bully ordinary citizens by stigmatizing those who complain ("bigots," "false patriots," "screamers," "burners")? They clearly hope future challenges simply won't be brought. Does that make Banned Books Week an attempt at prior restraint on speech by the government—an act of censorship?

—Mr. Muncy is chief operating officer of the Institute for American Values. From 1996 to 2008, he was editor in chief of Spence Publishing.

Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Portions reprinted per Fair Use provisions.

See also, "Thomas Sowell on Banned Books Week - BBW is 'Shameless Propaganda ... Now Institutionalized With a Week of Its Own'" and the large list of related articles from both sides of the issue.


  1. So by this logic, an individual going into a library and ripping pages out of a book is NOT censorship. And when a public library -- a part of government -- removes a book after a citizen's complaint, that's NOT censorship. And if a library restricts denies certain books to minors, that's NOT censorship.

    THAT is profoundly ignorant.

  2. It is not about parents guiding the education of their children. It is about parents trying to use the government to guide the education of everyone else's children.

    When the crazy Georgia lady spent years trying to get all Harry Potter books from libraries, she wasn't just trying to prohibit her kid from reading them. She didn't want MY kid to, and she was trying to use our government to prevent access on her behalf.

  3. Instead of getting upset each year about this week - why not help sponsor a (different) week about books that yourself and like-minded people think kids ought to be reading, instead?

    Critics of this week only fuel speculation that, indeed, maybe this week is necessary?

  4. Thanks for commenting, folks.

    Note that librarians often contact me via email about issues I post. They invariably support what I am saying but are afraid to say it publicly. And it's no wonder why.

    Here's what one librarian just wrote to me:

    "Thanks for passing along this article; it's very interesting. It's funny, because while I was researching all the 'banned books,' it occurred to me that it seems to be more about people complaining about various books than books actually getting banned. This article said what I was thinking!"

    Now why do you think it might be that librarians are afraid to say such things publicly, hmm? Might one reason be for fear of being called "profoundly ignorant" (Non-Censor) or "crazy" (Marjorie) or "like-minded," (Ed Tracey) etc.?

  5. Or... it might be that such librarians, to the limited extent that they exist, recognize that their position is a frank violation of the ethics of librarianship, which is firmly founded in the freedom of expression and the freedom to have equal access to information, as guaranteed by the First Amendment. They might recognize that one person's opinion as to what is pornographic, offensive, or harmful to minors is completely irrelevant by both law and logic.

  6. Wow!

    Are you sure you want to accuse librarians making statements like the one I presented as "frank violat[ors] of the ethics of librarianship"?

    Are you sure you want to make the statement that "one person's opinion as to what is ... harmful to minors is completely irrelevant by both law and logic"?

  7. I am sure I want to make them. The ethics of librarianship (founded in law) are quite clear on the matter. A librarian who is willing to remove a book, restrict access, label, or re-shelve on basis of content is plainly violating those professional ethics, and depending on the circumstances, may be infringing of the Free Speech rights of others.

    And yes, one person's opinion about what is pornographic or harmful to minors is irrelevant beyond their personal and private life. The law is VERY clear that Free Speech means that some people are going to be offended by others. Such offense is NOT a legal basis for controlling library holdings.

    Yes, I am sure I want to say these things.

  8. Given what Non-Censor has said, Judith Krug, the late 40 year de facto leader of the ALA, "may be infringing of the Free Speech rights of others." Evidence:

    "On rare occasion, we have situations where a piece of material is not what it appears to be on the surface and the material is totally inappropriate for a school library. In that case, yes, it is appropriate to remove materials. If it doesn't fit your material selection policy, get it out of there." "Marking 25 Years of Banned Books Week," by Judith Krug, Curriculum Review, 46:1, Sep. 2006.

    As to "one person's opinion," harmful to minors laws cannot be enforced if no one is ever allowed to have the opinion that material is harmful to minors. If we all look the other way, the law becomes useless. All laws become useless. Someone somewhere needs to have the opinion of a violation of something, then that person brings that opinion to the attention of the authorities. That's the way it works in lawful societies.

    I understand your opinion, Non-Censor, is that no librarian is ever in a position to make a judgment on any matter affecting anything other than his or herself. Provide support for your position. What ALA resources say that? What legal sources say that? What class in what library school did you attend that made such a statement, and what source was used to assert such a statement?

    Further, you said, "Such offense is NOT a legal basis for controlling library holdings." Point out to the public reading this blog post what authority requires public libraries to retain materials harmful to minors in the children/teen sections of the libraries?

    Specifically, point out how and why Judith Krug is wrong in her quote provided above.

  9. I've had to split my response into two comments.

    You have, of course, mis-construed my statements, extending them illogically.

    I cannot vouch for the opinions of Judith Krug, which may or may not be mine, when not taken out of context. Libraries can be SELECTIVE in what they decide to acquire, based on the interests of the communities they serve (no library carries everything). But they are bound to be view-point neutral in that selection. Note that what she SAID was go ahead and remove what doesn't fit your SELECTION policy. SELECTION Policy is a statement of what kinds of materials the library is looking for to serve its audience (and precludes legally obscene materials). She didn't say go ahead and remove whatever you don't like. (And I concur).

    And I didn't say everybody should turn a blind eye to what's on the shelves. IF -- and it's a huge if -- you really believe there is a book on the shelf that meets the LEGAL (not personal) definition of Obscene, Child Pornography or Harmful to Minors, you can and SHOULD complain to the library, call the police, complain to the district attorney, etc. Such formal, legal complaints are very rare in the attempts at censorship EXACTLY because so few materials in any public library come anywhere close to meeting those LEGAL definitions (and, thankfully, there are consequences for filing false complaints).

    I DID NOT say librarians are in no position to make judgments about materials. They frequently do. It's their job. But it is NOT their job to parent other people's children, or decide what one or another individual might be offended by. I DID say that the PERSONAL offense that a librarian or patron might take at certain materials is irrelevant, and it IS irrelevant: both law and professional ethics require them to accept the fact that there will be materials in the library that they (the librarians) or some patrons might object to.

    I did NOT say that libraries have to retain materials that are Harmful to Minors at all, let alone in the teen section. **IF** we're talking about Harmful to Minors in the legal sense, and not just personal opinion. And that's the real problem, isn't it? That distinction between personal opinion and the law.

    Let's be clear, the kinds of materials mostly objected to, with your support, such as Baby Be Bop, It's Perfectly Normal, or Annie on my Mind in West Bend, or the Bermudez Triangle in Leesburg, Fla., do NOT meet the definition of Obscene, or Child Pornography, or Harmful to Minors. They are targeted to teens and are of value to teens, and should be shelved in the teen section. Shelving them elsewhere is an attempt to discourage readership among the target audience, and that is something a parent can do privately, but not something a librarian can do publicly.

    The legal authority for this are the hundreds of court cases that have affirmed and re-affirmed that Free Speech cannot be constrained just because some people find that speech offensive. The limits on free speech in a library setting can only be applied to materials that meet the legal definitions of Obscenity, Child Pornography, or Harmful to Minors (all of which hinge on Obscenity). The exclusion of individual and personal opinion from the legal classification is built into the very definition of Obscenity (Miller v. California), which requires that a theoretically AVERAGE citizen of a community be the standard that is used for ONE leg of the definition, and NOT the most sensitive (nor the most permissive).

  10. It is BASIC to the concept of Free Speech that individual opinions about appropriateness, offensiveness, pornography, obscenity, harmfulness, and the like, will vary from individual to individual. Free Speech doesn't force you, as an individual, to look at or listen to what you don't approve of. But Free Speech also prohibits you from inflicting those personal definitions on others. You can constrain the expression of others only in certain narrow and legally defined topic areas, and if your personal opinions happen to differ from the legal standards, THEN YES, YOUR PERSONAL OPINION IS IRRELEVANT.

    Welcome to a constitutional democracy in pluralistic society and a secular state!!!!!

  11. “Our constitutional commitment to free speech, however, does not permit such subjective and ad hoc decisions. It establishes the public library as one of the places where majority sentiment or majority vote about offensiveness is irrelevant. A library attempts to serve all members and all interests in a community. Except in the narrow category of sexual obscenity, discussed in chapter 3, the law does not recognize a First Amendment exception based on subjective degrees of offensiveness. As the Supreme Court has stated, ‘It is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.’[1] It has further added offensiveness is ‘classically not [a] justification validating the suppression of expression protected by the First Amendment. At least where obscenity is not involved, we have consistently held that the fact that protected speech may be offensive to some does not justify its suppression.’ Although it would be much more pleasant if people spoke and wrote with civility and avoided noxious language and ideas, it remains ‘a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, [even though], not always with perfect good taste.’ [3]”
    --Constitutional law professor Robert S. Peck, in Libraries, The First Amendment, and Cyberspace: What You Need to Know. The cases Peck cites are [1] Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576; [2] Carey v. Population Services International, 431 U.S. 678; and [3] Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252.

  12. "Note that what she SAID was go ahead and remove what doesn't fit your SELECTION policy."

    I agree. What Non-Censor said goes beyond that, however. Until, that is, he finally expanded on his statements when confronted with reality.

    And here's more common sense, finally, from Non-Censor: "you can and SHOULD complain to the library, call the police, complain to the district attorney, etc."

    He said, "I DID NOT say librarians are in no position to make judgments about materials." He did, just not in so many words. Be that as it may, again he clarifies his statements in a way that make common sense.

    Here he starts to put words into my mouth: "Let's be clear, the kinds of materials mostly objected to, with your support, such as Baby Be Bop, It's Perfectly Normal, or Annie on my Mind in West Bend, or the Bermudez Triangle...." I call you out on this, Non-Censor. Where have I supported the removal of those materials? I support communities being equipped to make their own decisions based on informed consent, and not on misinformation like that at the core of BBW. I never call for the removal of any material. So, since you say I "support" such removals, specifically point out where. If you can't find where, then withdraw that statement.

    Non-Censor's generalized blanket legal authority that anything goes is too broad to address seriously. However, generally, I present the US Supreme Court, a source I find to be more authoritative than Non-Censor. Please read, "Board of Education v. Pico and the case itself.

    Given the above, I am happy Non-Censor is finally, slowly, starting to see the light of day and to make reasonable statements. If only he would withdraw his statement about large swaths of librarians acting unethically.

  13. "Judith Krug, the late 40 year de facto leader of the ALA"

    Ms. Krug was the director of the OIF. Not sure why you're elevating her to the "de facto" leader of the entire ALA.

    (other than, perhaps, that stretching truths helps you make your positions seem more valid?)

  14. I think we agree, then, especially where it says, "Except in the narrow category of sexual obscenity."

    Well what do you know, Non-Censor, we agree!

  15. Local MLIS Student,

    I have not and am not now "elevating her to the 'de facto' leader of the entire ALA." The ALA itself has.

    There is no need for me to "stretch[] truths [to] help[] make [my] positions seem more valid." Given the ALA made her the de facto leader, thank you for admitting the validity of my positions based on the facts.

    Fact: the ALA holds Judith Krug to have been its de facto leader.

    My opinion: I tend to agreed with the ALA's assessment that Judith Krug was its de facto leader.

    Last comment. I just had a successful conversation with Non-Censor about the issues, not the messenger. What a relief. Your contribution, however, Local MLIS Student, is just another attack on the messenger. You will never be taken seriously if you continue your nonstop comments addressed solely to the messenger and never the message.

  16. I accept your call out. What I wrote, and you even quoted, is my claim that you supported the OBJECTIONS of others. You change OBJECTIONS to REMOVAL.

    You have supported Ginny Maziarka and the WBC4SL in their objections to many materials. Perhaps you, personally, won't support REMOVAL (which she requested in writing), but you have supported her OBJECTIONS in every other way possible.

    You also wrote a letter to the Leesburg city council supporting the objectors to Bermudez Triangle. Again, you supported their OBJECTION.

    As to BOARD V PICO: you, imagine that case says things that it doesn't say. It says a school board COULD remove "pervasively vulgar" material, but doesn't define what that means. Contrary to your claim, this cases does NOT create a new class of speech that can be restricted in public libraries. You seem to forget that in this case the school board was ordered to PUT BOOKS BACK ON THE SHELVES. The Supreme Court held quite clearly that the removal of those books was a violation of the First Amendment.

    I have not posited any blanket legal authority for "anything goes." I have, however, pointed out, that the allowable restrictions on Free Speech are quite narrow, and that NONE of the specific works challenged WITH YOUR SUPPORT, fall into those narrow categories.

  17. Non-Censor, you have not provided specific links. I never support removal of items from libraries. I support local communities not being misled by major organization including the ALA, the ACLU, the NCAC, etc. I specifically point out how and where they are being misled, and I provided direct links to source material to back up my assertions. If, as a result of clear thinking based on accurate information, a community decides to legally remove or move certain material, that is the community's doing, not mine.

    As far as Pico, people should read it for themselves. To me it says pervasively vulgar materials may be removed at any time. To you it says nothing may ever be removed. Only one of us is right. People should read the case for themselves.

  18. Questioning one's truthfulness is valid.

    The links in your delicious account don't indicate that the ALA considers Krug to have been its "de facto" leader. You're statements are misleading and/or wrong.

    Please explain.

  19. Again, you've changed my word OBJECT to your word REMOVE.

    We can at least agree on encouraging people to read the PICO decision.

    How do you manage to extend the decision from a school library to a public library? What other cases have cited the "pervasively vulgar" part of the PICO decision to validate some censorship? (None, so far as I know). How do you explain the MANY other decisions (e.g., CASE V UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT), where PICO was cited as prohibiting school boards from removing books just because they don't approve of them?

  20. Maybe there is an easier way to have this debate? We on the outside must read “SafeLibraries” through a lens colored by Maziarka and the WBC4SL, the objecting parents of Leesburg, etc. Your alliance with such groups may not mean your complete endorsement of every aspect of their various positions, but that’s hard for us to see.

    You could clarify that. Tell us, specifically, what YOU think libraries can or should do in some specific situations. So: given the Maziarka complaint, what do you think the West Bend library should do with Baby Be Bop, Am I Blue, Annie on my Mind, etc.? What do YOU think the Leesburg library should do with Bermudez Triangle, given the objection of parents there? What do you think the law ALLOWS the library to do in response to those objections?

    Would you allow removal? Warning Labels? Re-Shelving? Age-based restrictions of access! What standards would a librarian use in deciding which books to to these things to? Or is it just a matter of doing what every anybody in the community wants done?


  21. Wait a minute.... what kind of word game are you playing here. You write "I never support removal of items from libraries." And then just two sentences later you write " If, as a result of clear thinking based on accurate information, a community decides to legally remove or move certain material, that is the community's doing, not mine."

    So you don't SUPPORT removal, you just ENCOURAGE communities to find a legal way to do it?


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