Libraries and Learning
July 15, 2018
To continue my posts relating core library values to our broader information landscape, I am going to scramble them up a bit. I had intended to go alphabetically (an order that does not seem absolutely obvious and natural to many of our students – they probably have a point, there). But when the American Library Association adopted a revision to a statement about how intellectual freedom applies to meeting rooms it created a storm of discussion and anger, so it seemed right to skip right ahead to intellectual freedom and why this library value matters beyond libraries. And is no simple matter.
Intellectual freedom means librarians strive to represent all perspectives and resist censorship that’s based on partisan or doctrinal disapproval or bias against a work’s creator. That’s pretty foundational for libraries, just as debating ideas freely is foundational to higher education.
There are a variety of ways this value plays out in libraries, and one of them is how you decide who gets to use public meeting rooms. There are two distinct issues at play, one legal, the other philosophical: public libraries are an arm of the government, so they must abide by the free speech rights established in the first amendment; also, librarians believe in free speech as a value. Both are open to interpretation, which is what makes case law and policy-writing so tricky. The revised policy wording that has caused such a lot of discussion is: “If a library allows charities, non-profits, and sports organizations to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library cannot exclude religious, social, civic, partisan political, or hate groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities.”
Several ALA councilors who voted to approve this change are unhappy because the phrase “hate groups” was inserted late in the process during a national conference where a lot was going on and they missed that insertion. On first reading, I thought it was a warning: careful, you may open yourself up to legal liability if you don’t word your policy carefully. Or maybe you should just not have meeting rooms available to the public after all. But it’s combined with a philosophical stance. Who are we to deny Nazis, white supremacists, or the local chapter of Attack the People We Think Are Scum from sharing their ideas in these public spaces? How else will we understand their perspectives and have civil debate? The problem, of course, is that a person who a group considers scum might see a poster for that event and think “there are going to be people in the library who want to attack me. I’d better avoid it.” Or a library employee who is in the category scum (according to that group) may well feel understandably vulnerable as people get together in their workplace to decide the best way to dispose of her.
Another ALA document states “Hate speech stops being just speech and becomes conduct when it targets a particular individual and includes behavior that interferes with a patron’s ability to use the library.” Oof, okay. I happen to think holding a meeting to discuss how to best eliminate a group I belong to is going to interfere with my ability to use the library, even when the group is simply saying “we’re coming on Wednesday.” It would seem to me philosophically sound to say something like “groups that, through their official statements, malign or promote hatred of groups of people based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity may not use the library’s meeting room.” Yes, I’m cribbing from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Whether that restriction would be legal, I don’t know, because I’m not a lawyer. Philosophically? I’m good with putting some clear limits on speech that targets entire groups and threatens violence. That doesn’t mean individuals who are group members couldn’t use the library so long as they don’t bother others, and I might have some books on the shelves that explain their thinking, but gathering in the library to promote hate? That’s a nope. Ironically, while some of the defense of the “hate groups” inclusion seems to be “it’s only words,” librarians also believe words are powerful; you can’t have it both ways.
The upshot of this #NoHateALA controversy is that the ALA is standing by its principles, but says the statement can be revised if that’s what the membership wants.
So, what does this have to do with our larger information environment? The internet was heralded as a place where free speech would thrive, where everyone would have a voice, where all ideas could be debated. That hasn’t worked out, in part because people behave badly and moderation is hard. Also, the platforms that dominate the internet today commercialize speech. They use participants to generate content to gain attention so they can place ads, but without any responsibility for the content or any mechanism to stop vile, dangerous, or deceitful material from propagation. There is no fool-proof mechanical way to effectively moderate speech that is illegal (e.g. child pornography), offensive, or disinformation designed to mess with civil society. Asking human participants to flag problems is inviting mischief and a lot more free labor. Facebook won’t ban Alex Jones’s Info Wars because it would violate free speech, but instead will try to hide it from view by downranking it. Meanwhile, news organizations find themselves made invisible unless they pay to promote an item – and then run the risk of being labeled a political ad.
Libraries have had to thread this needle for quite some time, just as any online community has had to develop its own rules of engagement. (In only a few cases, the rules are there are no rules.) It takes both a feel for community (and actually being part of a community, not a globe-straddling one-size-fits-all platform to sell things and yell at each other) as well as a commitment to making space for a wide variety of ideas to cultivate intellectual freedom. That doesn’t mean everyone has a right to say anything without consequences. It doesn’t mean the loudest voices get to drown out the quieter ones. It doesn’t mean those who aren’t tough enough to stand up to mobbing, doxing, or swatting just don’t get to participate. That’s not intellectual freedom.
The fact that the American Library Association, which has had decades to work this out, is still wrestling over this issue means it’s even more difficult to negotiate freedom of speech online. Google, Facebook, and all the other platforms we use are only beginning to recognize they have a problem. I’ll give this more thought next week, after a brief interruption to enjoy the outdoors.