Libraries, West Bend, and Civil Liberties

Going around the internet right now is the case of a local group of citizens in West Bend, WI, who disagree with the inclusion of GLBTQ texts in the local public library’s young adult collection and have therefore successfully petitioned for the removal of four trustees from the Library board. As widely reported in the press, West Bend residents Jim and Ginny Maziarka, who formed a private group called West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries, objected that GLBTQ texts are “pornographic” (para. 11) and that walking into libraries with such texts is akin to browsing a local adult entertainment shop (para. 16). The Maziarkas raised a fuss, contacted their city council, and successfully had a few library trustees rejected from re-appointment.

A number of people and organizations have made note of the blatant discrimination and rights abuses that this action set in motion. On the face of things, this story is a solid example of discrimination against the GLBTQ community or of the imposition of purported “community morals” onto an entire generation of local youth who may be of a different, yet legitimate “moral” persuasion. I worry, however, that this controversy hasn’t struck a stronger chord with the general public. What we’ve read about, and what we’re seeing in West Bend is a potential chilling effect that can pressure a city council and public library board to bend to the will of one community subgroup at the expense of another. The entire controversy, predicated on the vocal pressure of one group, runs the risk of trampling the rights of the entire community to freely associate, inform, and be informed. In short (and as Lisa Chellman has duly noted), the Maziarkas might be toying with the citizens of West Bend’s freedom to speak freely.

The link drawn between the freedom to read and the freedom to speak isn’t always made clear in the public eye. When we talk about freedom of speech, we generally speak about our right to say what we want, when we want. We picture a person ready and willing to give his or her opinion on the subject of the day. Implied in this image but lost in the rhetoric, however, is the concomitant right to listen to what is being said. A right to speak, after all, is worthless if there is no subsequent right to freely listen to the speaker, read the book or to analyze the data for oneself. Demanding the removal of GLBTQ texts from a library (regardless of its categorization as YA or general fiction) is to censure those who care to speak on the subject as well as those who care to read it. It imposes the will of one group over another.

The Maziarkas’ maneuvering to pressure the library board (and ostensibly the library itself) to work only for their groups’ needs and desires negatively affects West Bend’s ability to inform itself on a given topic from the entire spectrum of information/literature available to it. Their group’s actions threatens the rights of not only the city’s youth and GLBTQ communities, but also the rights of the city as whole. Since the West Bend library must serve the community members, one should therefore expect to find books with GLBTQ plots as well as “traditional” relationship storylines.

What can librarians do to protect the interests of the entire community and to protect the free and unfettered flow of information? Having a solid collections and display policy is often a standard answer, and in the West Bend case, it might help to a certain degree. In cases such as these, though, when political pressure threatens to stifle debate and the information flow, it is important to be both political and civil. Remember that we serve the interests of the community. To that end, organize, and integrate. To the former, seek advice from other librarians who have been to the front when it comes to civil liberties. To the latter, become vocal and get involved in the community, and remind it why it needs to see all viewpoints – even the ones it disagrees with. Knowledge and understanding – regardless of one’s opinions and biases – is nurtured only through critique and debate. Remind the community, constantly, why this is so.

Librarians should be neutral about the information they procure. But they shouldn’t be quiet when it comes to civil liberties. Be vocal on civil liberties, especially on the freedom to read. Ours is a profession that has expertise in this basic tenet of our culture, so we shouldn’t shy away from expressing it.

Some more links on the issue:

Paul Everett Nelson, who provides a link to a local group who are protesting and petitioning against the original anti-free-speech action.

The National Coalition Against Censorship‘s original post reporting on the petition, from early April 2009.