Kudos to a courageous Kentucky librarian

Two library employees were fired at the Jessamine County Public Library for violating library policy.  Deciding that the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume IV: The Black Dossier was inappropriate for young patrons, they conspired to keeping the book on permanent “checked-out” status and removed a “hold” one young patron placed on the book so that she would not be able to access it.

Library director Dr. Critchfield acted with both principle and courage when he dismissed the employees who decided that their personal views were more important than the library’s policy of serving the entire community and allowing library patrons to make their own decisions about what they, and their children, should read.  By essentially stealing the graphic novel that they believed was inappropriate for minors, the two employees engaged in censorship and potentially exposed the library to legal liability for violating its constitutional obligations.

Like adults, minors have First Amendment rights, and the only people who should be making decisions about what they read are their parents.  There was a time in this country when librarians censored what their patrons, both children and adults, could read.  In the early 20th century, librarians actually hid trashy novels in the stacks in the hope that no one would find them.  But in 1939 the American Library Association adopted the Library Bill of Rights, which provides that “libraries should provide information and materials presenting all points of view” and that “material should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal approval.”  This was an historic step forward for free speech because it committed libraries to the purchase of a wide range of books and magazines and committed librarians to defending their selections from efforts to censor them.

If every library employee followed their example and restricted access to books that express views they oppose, what books would be left on the shelves?  Libraries would contain only the least objectionable material, instead of places where people can explore ideas, even those considered offensive by others.

The book in question, like many books, may not be right for every user of the Jessamine County Public Library.  Individual library users have the right to voice their concerns and select different materials for themselves and their own children.  However, the First Amendment protects the right of those who wish to read the book and even to give it to their children.  Parents who are worried about what their children read should supervise their library selections, not expect the library to act as censor or babysitter.

We urge the library board to support Dr. Critchfield by upholding its strong policies guaranteeing a broad choice of reading material and protecting the freedom to read.

About Blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship

Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
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5 Responses to Kudos to a courageous Kentucky librarian

  1. Dan Kleinman says:

    I’ll agree the fired employee’s actions were not the swiftest. Let’s set that aside.

    The linked article contains information about possible freedom of speech denials, yet they have been overlooked in this blog post. Why?

    About 50 people showed up to an open library board meeting and they were not allowed to speak because freedom of speech was not on the agenda. Yet this blog post makes no mention of that. It’s right there in the article linked, but it’s not in this blog post at all.

    Further, although it was not on the agenda to let the public speak, somehow it was on the agenda to fire the employees overnight. The article says, “On Sept. 22, Cook told two of her colleagues at the library about her dilemma, and Beth Boisvert made a decision. She would take the book off hold, thus disallowing the child — or the child’s parents — ever to see the book. On Sept. 23, both Cook and Boisvert were fired. They were told by library director Ron Critchfield the firings were a decision of the library board.” To me that means they were fired overnight per a decision of the library board. Where was the agenda then? Do the open public meetings law have an exception for overnight library board meetings in Kentucky?

    And notice the library director says kids should have access to inappropriate material because otherwise their First Amendment rights would be violated. The NCAC points out his “principle and courage.” Even gives him “kudos.”

    So, while the employee’s actions are in question, this NCAC blog post has giving a free pass to a governmental organization (the library board) possibly denying the free speech rights of the citizens (the 50 patrons not allowed to speak).

    Would you be willing to add something here along these lines? Specifically, would you like to speak out about the library board’s denial of free speech to the public it supposedly serves?

    How serious can the NCAC be if the only censorship it opposes is the alleged kind that keeps children from inappropriate material? This NCAC blog post demonstrates the NCAC can read the news, discuss certain censorship it opposes, ignore other censorship it apparently favors, and all based on the single news story. Looks like hypocrisy 101.

  2. a reader says:

    Hello. I hope all is well.

    Not to tangent too much — there are lots of “subsets” within this larger argument, but consider: what if a librarian decided to remove Nabokov’s Lolita from the shelves b/c of its rather provocative material? Or Huckleberry Finn, b/c of some language that, while certainly not preferable in contemporary discourse, is a key element to the novel? Or some short stories by Raymond Carver — perhaps the most influential short story writer of the 1980s — b/c they have some sex scenes? Etc, etc.

    Now, I realize that these texts don’t “look like” graphic novels. But set that aside for a moment. Would the argument change? How might we react differently?

  3. Dear Mr. Kleinman,

    I am glad we agree that the employees’ actions disqualified them from working in a library.

    With regard to the 50 people who showed up at the library board meeting, it appears they did not request time to speak prior to the meeting, even though a full month had passed since the two employees were fired. Government meetings are supposed to proceed in an orderly fashion, with notice of the agenda provided prior to public meetings so that all interested parties can attend and request time to speak. The board has not deprived anyone of the opportunity to express their views. They set up a special meeting to listen to public concerns, which occurred yesterday, November 18th.

    You claim that the “library director says kids should have access to inappropriate material because otherwise their First Amendment rights would be violated.” That is not what Mr. Critchfield said. He referred to library policy that gives parents the right and responsibility to supervise their children’s reading choices, clearly implying that one person’s definition of what is “inappropriate” may not be shared by all.

    As a final matter, one point our post did not address, because of space considerations, is the claim by Cook and Boisvert that local communities can decide for themselves what they consider “obscene” and what children can have access to. This is an incorrect characterization of the law. Community standards come into play only in determining whether something “appeals to the prurient interest,” but the inquiry does not end there. Material is not obscene if it has “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value,” which is judged not by community standards, but by a national standard. The Black Dossier, which Time Magazine called one of the top 10 graphic novels of 2007, meets that test. It is plainly not obscene.

    Whether parents want their minor children to read it is a whole other matter: the First Amendment allows each of us to make that determination for ourselves.

  4. Dan Kleinman says:

    NCAC Blog:

    I give you credit for answering, and even for allowing comments in the first place. The ALA’s similar “OIF Blog” does not even allow comments, and once, when it did for a day or so and I added a comment, the comment was removed and the comment function was disabled. So bravo, NCAC.

    That said, let’s get back to the issues.

    Regarding the public comments allowed at the end of the meetings, I have attended numerous public meetings, including library board meetings, and public comments are accepted at the end of the meetings with never a need for the public to first make a request for time in advance, enough so such comments appear on the agenda. It’s open ended. You can say anything. There is never a demand that the comments have first to be placed on the agenda. Who ever heard of putting comments on the agenda already having a public comments section at the end? I do not believe for one minute that Kentucky requires citizens to announce ahead of time the desire to make public comments so that the library board has time to put the comments on the agenda. What is the public comment section at the end of all meetings for anyway if the public is not allowed to comment? How can the public even get a chance to comment if they have not yet seen the agenda to know what the government is allowing them to comment about in the first place!?!

    NCAC, you and others like you bend over backwards to oppose the slightest perception of alleged censorship. Like the ALA opposed the “right to apply accuracy” in Miami-Dade County public schools even though the 11th Circuit said there was no censorship. The US Supreme Court just denied certiorari on that case in which the ALA submitted a brief, yet the ACLU is still crying censorship.

    Along comes a library board that denies the free speech rights of citizens to speak freely about protecting children in libraries, and suddenly the hairline trigger for crying censorship is not tripped.

    Allowing the public to speak a month later does not cure the denial of free speech a month ago.

    I think that if the NCAC truly opposed censorship, it would oppose censorship no matter who or what was doing the censoring, and no matter the reason. Here the library board censored those who opposed the board’s firing decision, so suddenly the free speech violation gets special immunity from the NCAC. It’s just not right. It’s an evident double standard.

    Had you at least said, you know, you may be right, that was not cool, but at least they were heard a month later, that would have been a far better answer than, “With regard to the 50 people who showed up at the library board meeting, it appears they did not request time to speak prior to the meeting, even though a full month had passed since the two employees were fired.”

    You have evidenced a clear double standard.

    Further, since the agenda is not yet available for the public to review, the public could not possibly comply with the requirement with which you agree that the public announce public comments ahead of time.

    You have evidenced the construction or implementation of rules purposefully made impossible to follow “to proceed in an orderly fashion,” and that in itself may lead to censorship.

    “The board has not deprived anyone of the opportunity to express their views.”

    You have evidenced you make up your own facts.

    Tell the 50 people that were deprived of the opportunity to express their views that they were actually mistaken. Tell them they should have known that public comments means only those public comments placed on the agenda by the board before the meeting. Tell them they are the only people in the United States that are not allowed to comment during the public comment section. Tell them the NCAC says they should have jumped through procedural hurdles that are impossible to follow and not required anywhere else in the USA.

    So, NCAC, 1) you use double standards, 2) you support rules that are impossible to follow and so may amount to censorship of those you apparently oppose, and 3) you make up your own facts.

    Who is the person who actually writes these blog posts and responses. Do they actually think through what they are saying?

    If the NCAC writes to local communities about censorship, would it not be reasonable to point out the NCAC uses double standards, endorses impossible hurdles amounting to censorship, and makes up its own facts?

  5. Thank you, Dan, for your comments. We welcome all points of view on our blog and are glad that you feel welcome to discuss the issues with us. That said, we stand by the facts as we have already presented them in our posts.

    The author is listed above the comment section on the blog, and you can find a list of authors on the right side of the blog homepage, which range from interns to the executive director. It really is a joint effort from the whole team!

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