Module Nine: Intellectual Freedom and American Law

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Intellectual freedom is at the heart of the American political system and a governing principle of the information professions.   Intellectual freedom entails the fundamental right of all people to think, say, write, and espouse any idea or belief, regardless of its political, religious, or social foundation or intent.  Intellectual freedom also assumes that people have unrestricted and equal access to the ideas and beliefs of others, regardless of the communication medium used: voice, printed page, or computer.

Intellectual freedom begins with the U.S. Constitution.  The First Amendment promises that

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. 

The key concepts related to intellectual freedom in libraries are: 1) free speech (which includes the freedom to receive information), and 2) the right of people to assemble in a public place to receive that information. This public place, in constitutional terms, is called a public forum.  A public forum is a place where people come together to express themselves without interference from government authorities.  Traditionally, public forums have been streets, sidewalks, parks, public grounds near courthouses, and legislative buildings.

The ALA includes intellectual freedom in its Library Bill of Rights:

  • Materials shall not be excluded because of origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation;
  • Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues

Intellectual freedom is also an important concept within the ALA Code of Ethics:

  • We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all effort to censor library resources;
  • We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

Things to Read:

Judith Krug’s ELIS article provides more background on the profession’s role in advocating intellectual freedom and discusses key ALA groups and publications in this area.   The Dresang and Burke articles deal with censorship.  Dresang looks at some of the current debates in the profession, particularly the conflict between intellectual freedom and social responsibility.  Dresang also considers intellectual freedom in a virtual world.  She makes the interesting observation that in recent years book challenges have declined while censorship of the net is on the rise.  Burke’s article provides a case study of the challenges inherent in promoting intellectual freedom by examining how different information communities (regional, ethnic, religious, age, even academics) view the inclusion of racist literature in library collections.  It nicely illustrates the difficulty of implementing library policy that is sensitive to the values of different information communities, especially when those values contradict each other.


Things to View

View this scene from the movie Storm Center, in which a small-town librarian faces the town’s Council to defend her position on why, under the rights of intellectual freedom, that a controversial book should not be pulled. She decides to disregard the public outcry to pull “The Communist Dream”, realizing that her principles of intellectual freedom were being clouded by the threat of compromising a desired expansion to her library by keeping the book in the collection. While filmed in 1956, this scene is played out regularly by information professionals – you just need to substitute in other themes that are oft challenged as to their place in a library: religious views, derogatory terms, alternate sexual preferences, gender transition, sexual content, political views, abortion, etc, etc, etc…

Blaustein, J. (Producer), & Taradash, D. (Director). (1956). Storm Center. [Motion picture] USA: Columbia Pictures.

 


 Things to Explore:

Here are some additional links on the ALA website with information about libraries and intellectual freedom.  The “Control and Censorship of the Internet” site has links to websites related to libraries, internet, and intellectual freedom, while the Privacy Toolkit provides guidelines for developing a privacy policy. The “Libraries and the Internet Toolkit” is an older site, but it still has helpful information, especially concerning children.  Also included are links to the Freedom to Read Foundation and Office for Intellectual Freedom.