Censorship and Intellectual Freedom
After completing this session, you'll be able to:
- describe the legal authority that libraries have related to intellectual freedom.
- discuss the principles of intellectual freedom.
- provide examples of court cases and challenges to intellectual freedom.
- discuss the use of intellectual freedom and reconsideration policies.
- discuss the reconsideration process.
- describe your personal biases.
- discuss "real world" issues in censorship.
Begin by viewing the class presentation in Vimeo. Then, read each of the sections of this page for more detail.
Explore each of the following topics on this page:
- Libraries: Selectors or Censors?
- Court Cases
- Organized Efforts
- The Challenge
- Personal Bias
- The Real World
What's the difference between a selector and a censor? Which are you?
A selector seeks reasons to include an item in the collection, while a censor is looking for reasons to remove an item from the collection. A censor infringes on the rights of others by blocking or limiting access to information.
The Article 1 of the Bill of Rights, also referred to as the First Amendment, states:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Because you cannot have freedom of speech or the press without freedom to hear or read, the United States Constitution provides libraries with the legal authority to support intellectual freedom.
Read The Censor: Motives and Tactics from ALA. To combat challenges to intellectual freedom, it's important to know the mind of a censor.
The library profession has a number of very specific tenets or principles as they relate to intellectual freedom.
Library Bill of Rights
The first is the Library Bill of Rights. In addition to stating that there should be library resources for "all people of the community the library serves" and "presenting all points of view," this document states that "Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment."
These revolutionary ideas did not come out of The Sixties social revolution generation, but rather 1948, the era when Senator Joseph McCarthy (below) was blacklisting actors and directors for their alleged Communist leanings.
Freedom to Read
An interrelated document is the Freedom to Read statement adopted in 1953 by the American Library Association and the American Book Publishers Council and later by the Association of American Publishers. With these two documents, libraries have a clear direction to provide a range of materials and people have the right to read them.
Closely associated with reading is viewing. The Freedom to View statement focuses on speaking, hearing, and reading.
Along with the Library Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read statement, other important documents have emerged from the American Library Association that focus on particular areas of intellectual freedom and librarianship:
- Access for Children and Young Adults to Nonprint Materials
- Access to Digital Information Services and Networks
- Access to Library Resources and Services Regardless of Sex Gen
- Access to Resources in the School Library Media Program
- Challenged Materials
- Diversity in Collection Development
- Economic Barriers to Information Access
- Evaluating Library Collections
- Exhibit Spaces and Bulletin Boards
- Expurgation of Library Materials
- Free Access to Libraries for Minors
- Importance of Education on Intellectual Freedom
- Intellectual Freedom Principles for Academic Libraries
- Labeling and Rating Systems
- Library-Initiated Programs as a Resource
- Meeting Rooms
- Minors and Internet Interactivity
- Prisoners' Right to Read
- Restricted Access to Library Materials
- Services to Persons with Disabilities
- Universal Right to Free Expression
Read the Library Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read statement. You should know these documents very well. Also, skim the related documents. Think about why these interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights were necessary. It's interesting to look at when these items were adopted.
Then, go to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom and browse their resources, initiatives and projects.
Based on the First Amendment, a number of court cases have upheld the right of access to materials that some may feel are objectionable.
In 1934, a judge found that Ulysses, by James Joyce was sincere, honest, and not obscene when taken as a whole. This last statement is an important element when dealing with library patrons who wish to have an item pulled from the collection. Often they see only the "dirty bits" and don't bother with the rest of the work to take the whole into consideration.
In 1973, Miller v California reiterated the concept of materials taken as a whole. The case also clarified that obscenity should be judged by average people using local community standards and meet the definition specified by state law.
The first case demonstrating the First Amendment rights of youth was Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. During the Vietnam War, three students chose to wear black armbands (shown below) to school to protest the war. A school policy was adopted banning the armbands, but the students continued to wear them resulting in their suspension from school. The courts upheld the First Amendment rights of the students.
In 1982, the Tinker case was cited to specifically overturn a challenge of library books in school libraries in the Island Trees School District v. Pico case. This drew a clear connection between the First Amendment and the rights of children and libraries.
More recently, other books have been challenged including
- And Tango Makes Three, based on the true story of two male zoo penguins that raise a penguin chick because some see a homosexual theme.
- The Hunger Games series due to perceived anti-family themes and violence.
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because some see it as racist.
- To Kill a Mockingbird is viewed as being racist and using offensive language.
In many of the challenges, the fuzzy "unsuited to age group" rationale is used. The vast majority of books challenged are for youth, so those seeking school or public library positions should be particularly aware of the issues. That doesn't mean that academic and special libraries are immune.
A number of groups have been organized to make people aware of "problem" books and others to argue against censorship.
Although the site hasn't been updated recently, one of the oldest groups trying to control what children read is PABBIS (Parents Against Bad Books in Schools). Groups like this often point to selected passages, so it is important to remember the "taken as a whole" standard laid out by the courts. The bookcovers below are from the PABBIS "bad books" list. Some of the books are classics found on most high school reading lists.
On the surface, the websites of these groups may see pro-literacy, but it doesn't take long to identify their hidden motives. Below is a list of active censorship groups:
The American Library Association incorporated the Freedom to Read Foundation in 1969. This is one of the best places for up-to-date information about defending the first amendment in libraries. It's also a place you can go if you have challenges in your library.
After a school superintendent banned the Harry Potter books from classroom reading, a group of children organized to counter these efforts. They continue now with other book challenges via KidSpeak.
Other organizations that defend first amendment rights:
- American Civil Liberties Union
- American Library Association
- Americans United
- Electronic Frontier Foundation
- Freedom Forum
- Media Coalition
- People for the American Way
Educating the public is the best way to ward off challenges to intellectual freedom. Most librarians use Banned Book Week as a way to educate the public about freedom to read and view. The week is celebrated each fall. Celebrate it each year by reading a banned book and sharing it with your friends.
Go to Banned Books Week website at ALA and also the Banned Books Week website. Check out the list of Challenged books of the 21st century, Frequently Challenged Books or Banned and/or Challenged Books. Many of their titles will be familiar. Here are a baker's dozen title to get you started:
Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
And Tango Makes Three by Lauren Myracle
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer
There's a good chance that sometime during your career, you'll be faced with an issue regarding intellectual freedom. It's essential that you incorporate intellectual freedom and reconsideration policies in your Collection Development Plan.
Preparing for the Challenge
Before the first person walks in to challenge an item in your collection, you should be sure you have an Intellectual Freedom Policy in place. Not only should this policy state your commitment to the First Amendment and intellectual freedom, it should include specific procedures for handling challenges.
Check out a sample "Request for Reconsideration of Library Materials" form on the right by Gregory (2011). Click to enlarge the image.
Sample reconsideration forms:
- Indiana Dept of Education Request for Reconsideration of Materials Sample Form
- Sample Request for Reconsideration of Library Resources from ALA
For lots of ideas, go to the American Library Association's Essential Preparation page. They provide lots of ideas including Coping with Challenges: Kids and Libraries, Dealing with Concerns about Library Resources, Guidelines and Considerations for Developing Public Library Internet use Policy.
Facing the Challenge
You need to go with your gut when the challenge actually does happen.
A former school librarian shared her experience that her principal would regularly come in with a book in hand with a request to remove it from the collection. Her response to him was that there was a procedure in place, and he would need to fill out the paperwork like anyone else. Yes, she had guts, but she also had a good relationship with her principal and a husband with a well-paying job. If your job were on the line, what would you do?
If individuals or groups make a formal challenge to an item in your library, get help!
- Follow your intellectual freedom and reconsideration policies. Keep careful notes about any interactions with individuals or groups making a challenge. If you feel confident about the process, you may not need further support.
- Contact your state ALA affiliate or other state library organizations to find out what support is available. In Indiana, contact the Indiana Library Federation and specifically the Intellectual Freedom Committee. You should join this organization BEFORE you have a problem. They will know the history of challenges in your state and who you might contact to share experiences, gather support, and acquire state-specific information. Read their Facing a Challenge? page.
- Contact the national ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom for suggestions and support.
- Connect with the Freedom to Read Foundation to find out what free support they might be able to offer.
- Be sure to report your challenge to both your state association and to ALA. They keep track of challenges.
In 1986, ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee developed a list of terminology to assist librarians in describing types of challenges. These include
- Expression of Concern. An inquiry that has judgmental overtones.
- Oral Complaint. An oral challenge to the presence and/or appropriateness of the material in question.
- Written Complaint. A formal, written complaint filed with the institution (library, school, etc.), challenging the presence and/or appropriateness of specific material.
- Public Attack. A publicly disseminated statement challenging the value of the material, presented to the media and/or others outside the institutional organization in order to gain public support for further action.
- Censorship. A change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes.
Are you a selector or censor? We all have our personal biases. You may or may not be aware of yours.
ODLIS defines collection development bias as
"Partiality in the selection of materials for a library collection, whether against or in favor of materials presenting a particular point of view or with respect to a specific type of resource, category of publisher, etc. Although the Library Bill of Rights of the American Library Association charges librarians in the United States to "provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues," some studies suggest that librarians tend to avoid selecting potentially controversial books and media, for reasons conscious or unconscious, undermining the goal of balanced collection development."
ODLIS defines pre-censorship as
"the restriction of materials from a library collection during the selection process by a collection development librarian or other person authorized to select, based on conscious or unconscious bias. Although the Library Bill of Rights of the American Library Association (ALA) charges librarians to "provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues," some studies have found that librarians tend to avoid selecting potentially controversial books and media. The prefix "pre" added to the term "censorship" indicates that restriction occurs before library materials are made available to patrons."
ODLIS defines censorship as
"Prohibition of the production, distribution, circulation, or display of a work by a governing authority on grounds that it contains objectionable or dangerous material. The person who decides what is to be prohibited is called a censor. Commonly used methods include decree and confiscation, legislation, repressive taxation, and licensing to grant or restrict the right to publish.
The ALA Code of Ethics places an ethical responsibility on its members to resist censorship of library materials and programs in any form and to support librarians and other staff who put their careers at risk by defending library policies against censorship. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) maintains a Web page on Internet Censorship. Compare with suppressed."
Campbell, P. (2007). The pottymouth paradox. The Horn Book, 83, 311-315. Do you have a "pottymouth"? How do you view the dilemma of the "real world" and "bad language" in literature?
Cronin, Blaise (2000). Whatever happened to common sense? Library Journal, 125, 177.
Hill, Rebecca (2010). The problem of self-censorship. School Library Monthly, 27(2), 9-12.
Where's the line?
In 2007, Barry Lyga published Boy Toy, a young adult novel motivated by an actual event of a teacher seducing a 13-year-old student. A Booklist review states, "the description of what goes on between the two of them are sometimes so graphic, they border on soft porn". Lyga has written a number of books that appear in library collections all over the country, including The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, soon to be made into a movie; however, the sales of Boy Toy have been miniscule and the book has not been challenged. Lyga's book has an important message for youth who have been sexually abused by adults and for the friends of those young people, yet it appears that librarians are afraid to add this book to their collections. Is there self-censorship present?
A recent article in School Library Journal highlighted the problem of personal bias and how to deal with in. Scales (2010) dealt with questions and answers in her article:
"I learned in library school that you should never allow personal biases to interfere with decisions about collection development. Every year, our fifth-grade teachers teach a unit on the American Revolution. One of them doesn't think we have enough books in the library on the topic and she has requested that I buy a few more. But I have a personal problem with books that contain information about guns and violence. I just can't bring myself to buy them. Help!
You can't teach a unit on the American Revolution without the blood-and-guts part, and that includes information about guns and all sorts of crude weapons. The students can handle it. The question is, can you? The purpose of a school library is to expand students' knowledge and curiosity. Is the teacher recommending Russell Freedman's Lafayette and the American Revolution and Washington at Valley Forge? Freedman doesn't sugarcoat the truth. If you give his books a chance, they may change your mind about children's books that deal with our nation's history, which, of course, includes war. You have to come to grips with this issue--or realize that you're in the wrong profession."
Whelan, D. L. (2009). A dirty little secret. School Library Journal, 55, 26-30. Are you a selector or censor?
"It's a public library. If you don't like the book, magazine, CD-ROM or film, put it down and pick up something else. Libraries provide choice. Our responsibility is to have in our collection a broad range of ideas and information."
This is a quote from Judith Krug (1940-2009), former Director of ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom and an outspoken advocate of the First Amendment. It refers to public libraries, but it is a message for all types of libraries. She was a giant in our field, and her work will guide librarians for many years after her passing.
Face censorship head-on. Most librarians have war-stories they can share about challenges. In many cases, problems can be eliminated through educating library users before a formal challenge is made. However you need to be ready for challenges from individuals as well as formal groups.
It's time for a personal example. A concerned parent of a fourth grader had requested that I remove the book Nightmare: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep by Jack Prelutsky and Arnold Lobel because the poetry had given their child recurring nightmares. They had seen the image on the right and read the following poem.
"The gruesome ghoul, the grisly ghoul,
without the slightest noise
waits patiently beside the school
to feast on girls and boys...
He cracks their bones and snaps their backs
and squeezes out their lungs,
he chews their thumbs like candy snacks
and pulls apart their tongues."
You get the idea. I explained that books sometimes give children nightmares, but other children enjoy spooky, humorous poems. The book had high circulation and most youth loved it. I explained that the book was in the poetry section not the picture book (easy reader) section so it was unlikely that young children would check it out by accident. In this case, the discussion didn't go any further. But my reconsideration policy and forms were ready, just in case.
Kenney, Brian (June 2010). Filtering out reality. School Library Journal, 56(6). Do you filter out reality?
Best, R. (2010). Censorship or selection? Academic library holdings of the top ten most challenged books of 2007. Education Libraries, 33(2), 18-33.
Burke, S. K. (2010). Social tolerance and racist materials in public libraries. Reference and User Services Quarterly, 49(4), 369-379.
Campbell, P. (2007). The pottymouth paradox. The Horn Book, 83, 311-315.
Cronin, Blaise (2000). Whatever happened to common sense? Library Journal, 125, 177.
Doyle, Robert P. (2010). 2010 BBW Resource Guide. ALA.
Gregory, Vicki L. (2011). Collection Development and Management for 21st Century Collections. Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.
Hill, Rebecca (2010). The problem of self-censorship. School Library Monthly, 27(2), 9-12.
Intellectual Freedom Manual (2002). 6th ed. American Library Association.
Kenney, Brian (June 2010). Filtering out reality. School Library Journal, 56(6).
Neary, L. (2008, Sept. 30). 'Grapes of Wrath' and the politics of book burning. Morning Edition. =
Pekoll, K. (2009). Standup!: Defending teens' right to read at West Bend Community Memorial Library. Voice of Youth Advocates, 34(4), 284-287.
Random House. (2008). The First Amendment first aid kit: What to do if someone challenges a book.
Scales, Pat (November 2010). Every breath she takes. School Library Journal, 56(11), 19.
Whelan, D. L. (2009). A dirty little secret. School Library Journal, 55, 26-30.
Portions of this page were adapted from Collection Development & Management by Irwin and Albee (2012).