Fall 2004 - Volume 7 Number 4
Intellectual Freedom Manual (6th ed.)
Chicago: American Library Association, 2002
The concept of intellectual freedom (or more narrowly in the college context, the concept of academic freedom) is much applauded but little defined and less applied. Indeed, it has only been within the past year as Ontario colleges reinvent themselves as Applied Degree-granting institutions, often in partnership with universities, that the matter has been considered important enough to merit the attention of Boards of Governors as they struggle to work out formal policy statements. Senior institutions, it seems, have noticed that academic freedom is absent from the rhetoric of college administrators and the reality of teachers' lives. Through the instrumentality of Ministry officials, they have made it mandatory for the colleges to work out principles and practices that appear first to define academic freedom for colleges, and then to respect it.
A similar concern exists in public libraries. Both governmental authorities and special interest groups within the communities that libraries serve have often expressed outrage at the inclusion of certain sorts of materials in library collections. More recently, the enthusiasm with which many libraries have adopted the provision of Internet access as an integral part of their mandate has resulted in a variety of new problems. How to restrict adult and especially child patrons from logging on to pornographic websites is an issue with which both parents and librarians (acting in loco parentis) have been expected to contend. Internet access is simply the latest in a long series of issues that have raised important matters of freedom of expression and, where they have been resolved in favour of some sort of control, it has also raised the technological challenge of adequate filtering equipment. Not only do filters often keep out excellent information sources (e.g., Amnesty International, the Chicago Public Library, the American Family Association and the Mars Exploration site), but they also frequently fail to fulfil their primary putative purpose of restricting children's access to sexually explicit and other "inappropriate" material.
In the United States, the American Library Association (ALA) has produced a comprehensive Library Bill of Rights which affirms its commitment to providing "resources … for the interest, information and enlightenment of all the people of the community the library serves," regardless of "origin, age, background or views." On the specific matter of filtering, the ALA has responded by resolving that "the use of filtering software by libraries to block access to constitutionally protected speech violates the Library Bill of Rights." As it points out in this manual, the US Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU held that the Internet, as a medium of communication, deserves the First Amendment's highest protection, and that persons using the Internet enjoy the same right to publish and receive information as do those who use print media. These rights," moreover, "extend to minors, who enjoy the same right to receive information as do adults."
In Canada, the Canadian Library Association has appropriated much of the language of the ALA and, under the rubric of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, has committed itself to providing "access to all expressions of knowledge, creativity and intellectual activity" as an expression of its "basic responsibility for the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom," and to provide resources that "some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable (the complete statement is available on-line at <http://www.cla.ca/about/infreed.htm>).
Affirmations of rights and freedoms, like all declarations of principle, must be carefully worded, and the Intellectual Freedom Manual shows just how difficult the generation of principled language can be. We learn, for example, that in 1944 the following phrasing was inserted into the ALA Bill of Rights: "books believed to be factually correct should not be banned or removed from the library simply because they are disapproved of by some people." Apart from displaying poor grammar, the ALA exposed itself to almost infinite possibilities of rancor and turmoil.
Semantics are important: if our words are unclear, we literally do not know what we saying, and three words (and questions arising from them) ought to have stood out to the ALA officials. What is the epistemological status of a "belief"? Who is to judge and according to what criteria are judgements to be made concerning what is "factually correct"? I, for instance, do not believe in the literal truth of many statements in The Holy Bible and The Qu'ran. Others do not believe that the theory of evolution is "factually correct." I would not propose the removal of sacred texts from libraries and I would hope that religious fundamentalists would tolerate Darwinian literature. Such confidence is not always justified, however, and using "truth" as a standard makes for a great deal of trouble.
Highlighting such issues is just one of the important purposes that this well organized and very useful book achieves. It was, no doubt, compiled for the use by professional librarians, but it is valuable to all who take the support of intellectual freedom seriously. Advice is provided on such practical matters as developing a "confidentiality policy"; it is sage advice that is applicable in many public service institutions.
Why is this important? On 30 March, 1981, I vividly recall, a young man named John Hinckley attempted to assassinate US President Ronald Reagan. Almost immediately, a phone call was made to the FBI station in Boulder, Colorado. A dutiful librarian in the town where Hinckley grew up was offering assistance to the authorities. She thought it might help if she were to supply a list of all the books that Hinckley had withdrawn from the library since he was a small child. (Such an initiative would not, of course, have been sanctioned by the ALA.) I do not know if the law enforcement agency took advantage of the offer, but I do know that such records are now thought desirable in the current atmosphere of concern over "public safety" and the increasing indifference to personal liberties and privacy. The Intellectual Freedom Manual offers wise counsel on this and related topics.
The book also provides helpful historical information about the origin and development of concern for intellectual freedom and a set of handy suggestions about designing a political strategy to anticipate and respond to repressive legislation and hostile pressure groups.
Of special interest to the college community is the ALA's discussion of academic libraries. In the mid-1970s, International Publishers in New York published the complete works of Marx and Engels. I do not recall the price, but I do remember that the dozens of hard-cover volumes were extraordinarily inexpensive. Since my college library already possessed the complete works of Sigmund Freud and other important modern intellectuals, it seemed like a fine idea to order Marx as well. The request to purchase was denied on the ground that the college did not offer any courses in "political science." When it was pointed out that the books would be equally relevant in economics, history, philosophy and sociology and that, in fact, we did teach a number of courses in political science, the explanation shifted. Even at bargain rates, the purchase was deemed too expensive. In reply, the faculty offered to take up a collection and pay for the books ourselves. At that point, it was said that there was insufficient shelf space. And … well, the dispute went on to no one's apparent satisfaction.
Such controversies, I would like to believe, are now of only antiquarian interest, but applying the ALA (or the derivative CLA standards) would certainly ensure a significant measure of academic freedom, and consulting this book would provide invaluable reference material for anyone who is interested in doing just that.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
Copyright © 2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology