Weaponizing “Free Speech”

How the Library Wars Came to Bonners Ferry Idaho

A small public library in Bonners Ferry, Idaho was recently made the center of a national firestorm about free speech.

With a population of only 2,561, this village 27 miles south of the Canadian border has become a cameo for a wider debate on whether public libraries have a duty to add sexually explicit children’s books to their collections, and whether failure to do so constitutes “book banning” and an abrogation of First Amendment rights.

Reporters from NPR, CNN, and NBC have all taken an interest in the Bonners Ferry controversy, which is being framed as a conflict involving “free speech,” vs. “censorship.” These reports in the national media have raised concerns that the alleged clampdown on free speech is part of a wider move to bring right-wing extremism to Idaho’s panhandle. The CNN report sensationalized the controversy by showing footage of neo-Nazis, suggesting that the recent debate is related to growing fascism in the region. (The actual video footage of neo-Nazis used in the CNN report was taken from the 1970s.)

An honest look at the situation on the ground, however, shows that the media have been manufacturing a set of illusory issues, spurred on by agenda-driven activists who have not taken the time to understand how small public libraries actually function. As this article will show, the media has been weaponizing the concept of free speech to bully libraries into bringing sexually explicit content into their collections.

Let’s begin by looking at the background to the present controversy.

From “Best Small Library” to Nationwide Controversy

Since 1930, the Boundary County Library has served the village of Bonners Ferry and the surrounding areas. As the only library in the sparsely populated Boundary County, it is often the first port of call for the many homeschoolers in the region, including a large community of Mennonites. In 2017 the library was named “Best Small Library in America” for being at the forefront of high-tech developments after introducing a “Fab Lab” where patrons can work with computer-aided design and machining. While at the cutting edge of technological innovation, Boundary County Library has retained the best features of an older village library by preserving a physical card catalog and resisting the trend to weed out classics.

But now the library’s future is tenuous as controversy rocks the village. On one side of the conflict are townsfolk who insist that the library must never acquire sexually explicit children’s books as part of the permanent collection. For them, this is a straight-forward case of protecting the youth and defending the library’s charter to serve its constituents. But on the other side of the conflict are villagers opposed to any policies that would preemptively block the acquisition of sexually explicit materials. Villagers in the latter camp have been convinced by media reports that this is a straightforward question of access, free speech, and preventing “personal bias” from intruding into a library’s collection development choices.

As with many of our nation’s contentious debates, this one has unfolded along the fault lines of a manufactured set of questions that merely disguise the real issues at stake. “Free speech” actually has nothing to do with a library’s collection, but is simply being used as a rhetorical device to demonize parents seeking to protect their children.

Confused by Free Speech

At first glance, case law relating to libraries and free speech seems confusing.

On the one hand, the First Amendment protects free speech, while a number of important court cases throughout our nation’s history have reaffirmed the importance of the concept. One such case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969), ruled that the government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” According to many activists, this and similar cases create legal precedent, rooted in the First Amendment, for libraries to obtain books for their collection that may be offensive to the public, even children’s books containing graphic sexual content. Accordingly, it is claimed that any library refusing to obtain sexually explicit materials is in opposition to the letter and spirit of these rulings.

And yet the matter is far from straight-forward. A body of case law has established that obscenity does not enjoy First Amendment protections. As John R. Vile from Middle Tennessee State University explained,

Kaplan v. California, 413 U.S. 115 (1973), a case decided by the Supreme Court in conjunction with Miller v. California (1973) and Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton (1973), affirmed that a book, even without illustrations, can be obscene and thus unprotected by the First Amendment.

Nine years later, in New York v. Ferber (1982), the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not forbid states from banning the sale of child pornography or material depicting juvenile sexual activity, even in cases where the later does not qualify as obscene.

Not only does the law permit organizations to restrict obscene materials, but in the case of libraries the law specifically requires them to filter content in order to protect the wellbeing of their patrons. For example, the Children's Internet Protection Act (2000) requires public libraries to use filtering technology on computers in order to block obscenity and other harmful resources. Many state codes have added to this by insisting on different levels of filtration for library computers.

When the American Library Association alleged that filtration violates the First Amendment rights of patrons, the Supreme Court overruled them in United States v. American Library Association (ALA), 539 US 194 (2003). In commenting on the verdict, Justice Kennedy declared,

“The interest in protecting young library users from material inappropriate for minors is legitimate, and even compelling, as all Members of the Court appear to agree.”

This verdict set a precedent for rulings in lower courts. For example, in Wisconsin v. David J. Reidinger (2016), the Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled that a library patron did not have a First Amendment right to view pornography in a public library.

But it is not only library computers where information access is routinely restricted, nor is pornography the only type of material that libraries are required to restrict. Libraries throughout the United States are not allowed to give away people’s personal data, state secrets, or to provide information promoting certain types of immoral behavior (for example, pedophilia, rape, or human traffiking). Does this mean that free speech does not apply to libraries? Are libraries exempt from having to abide by provisions protecting free speech?

It’s Actually Not About Free Speech

Much of the confusion about free speech has arisen through failure to understand how libraries actually function.

Because a library is a finite resource, it must necessarily decide to include some materials and exclude others, and it is a common practice for librarians to make such decisions based on ethical considerations. Yet when librarians choose not to obtain certain books for their collection, whether for ethical or practical reasons (e.g. space limitations, lack of user-demand, etc.), those titles are nevertheless available to patrons as interlibrary loans (ILL). Through the ILL process, libraries obtain books from other libraries for a specific patron to borrow for a specified amount of time without that book becoming part of its on-site collection. Now crucially, a library can only be said to be “banning” or “censoring” a title if patrons are forbidden to order the title on ILL This overlooked point was raised in a post Adrienne Norris published on a parents’ advocacy group for Boundary County Idaho.

“Since a library is not an infinite resource, it must always be making decisions about which books to bring in. Libraries frequently make selection decisions based on a range of criteria, including what books will be healthy for their community of patrons. For example, it is common practice for public libraries in the United States not to order books promoting misinformation or potentially harmful viewpoints (i.e., racism, neonazism, propaganda, etc.). If this type of selection process constitutes ‘censorship,’ then every library practices censorship since no library has space for every book….

No one in Boundary County is seeking to censor or ban any book. For a book to be ‘banned’ or ‘censored’ would mean the title could not be ordered on interlibrary loan. But nobody is advocating such a ban. Rather, the question at stake is whether sexually explicit materials should be accessible to children. Media outlets like NPR are trying to propagandize the public into believing that even though our library has never held these types of books in all its years of operation, that refusal to change this now represents a wave of book-banning and censorship.

These types of considerations are widely understood among librarians and have received attention in the peer-reviewed literature for Library and Information Science. It is widely acknowledged that both public libraries and college libraries do not have an obligation to provide limitless on-site access to every conceivable resource. For example, libraries do not have a duty to provide tracts on how to build bombs, nor resources on how to poison people, or how to stir up hate against certain groups. Thus, it is a mistake to try to apply the concept of “free speech” to a library’s collection development policies.

Nevertheless, the national media has been framing the controversy in Bonners Ferry as one of free speech. Free speech is being weaponized to pressure this small town to bring sexually explicit materials to the children’s section of their library, and to demonize those who object as enemies of free speech.

What Villagers Are Saying

Adrienne Norris, who is leading a parents advocacy organization to block sexually explicit materials from coming into the Boundary County Library, is a concerned mother in Bonners Ferry. She became involved in parent activism after being told that a 6-year-old could go into the library and check out an R-rated movie. Norris said, “The library's own lawyer stated that it was not a violation of the 1st Amendment to keep sexually explicit material out of the library.” She continued:

The library’s lawyer stated that the community does have a right to choose their collection, and the library isn’t required to have sexually explicit materials if the community chooses otherwise. Those that seek that type of materials can still use the interlibrary loan system. In other words the lawyer stated that appeals to free speech are not applicable. Nevertheless, a library board member, William ‘Lee’ Colson (Zone 5-Naples), continues to try to make this about free speech - for example, by appealing to the Brandenburg v. Ohio ruling.

Mark is a concerned father and community member who believes the concept of free speech is being weaponized by people who do not fully understand this concept, nor its application in a library setting. He spoke with Salvo about why value-neutrality is neither possible nor desirable within a library context:

Salvo: “Parents like you are being accused of advocating ‘book banning.’ What do you have to say about that?

Mark: “It’s crazy to say that we are advocating book-banning. As was mentioned on the parental advocacy website (http://boundarylibrary.org), no one in Boundary County is seeking to censor or ban any book. For a book to be ‘banned’ or ‘censored’ would mean the title is unavailable, for ideological reasons, from being accessed on interlibrary loan. But nobody is advocating such a practice. Rather, the question is whether sexually explicit materials should be accessible to children, or even in the library at all. Those who are agitating to allow these books want us to believe that even though our library has never held these types of books in all its years of operation, refusal to change now represents a wave of book-banning and censorship.”

Salvo: “The local parents’ advocacy group has compared this issue to food at the supermarket. Could you explain that argument to our readers?”

Mark: “Yes, so we ask people to imagine that activists started demanding, for political reasons, that a supermarket begin carrying a new product it had never previously had on its shelves, and then asserting that failure to start carrying this product represents food-banning and a withholding of food from the community. Of course, we would recognize that as crazy. But by the same token, it is unreasonable to accuse libraries of restricting access to books and information because they refuse to bring in certain new titles. Would we ask libraries in Jewish communities to carry books by authors known to be antisemitic or who deny the holocaust? Would we ask public libraries in African American neighborhoods to carry books by white supremacist authors? Of course not. But by the same token, it isn’t unreasonable that our community members are saying no to sexually explicit children’s books, including books that would have been illegal even fifteen years ago.

Salvo: “Some parents have claimed that this controversy has been intensified through people not understanding how libraries actually work. Could you give us some examples of that?”

Mark: “Well, many people do not realize that every book a library holds comes at a cost. For each book there is the cost of storage, preservation, organizing, as well as the indirect costs diffused throughout the entire collection. Moreover, every book that takes up space in the collection necessarily excludes another book that might otherwise be there. This is precisely why librarians must routinely assess the value of each book, and constantly engage in both weeding/thinning as well as acquisition. Many considerations go into weeding and acquisition, including user-demand, frequency of use, content of work, etc. Regarding the content of a work, librarians frequently analyze whether the content is helpful, or whether the work promotes ideas that might be harmful to the community. To assess a book according to such criteria is not to advocate censorship, but is part of the nitty gritty of collection development.”

Salvo: “But once you start talking about whether a book is harmful to the community, isn’t that a personal judgment? And if so, what would you say to the argument that judgments about which books are harmful or helpful boils down to subjective bias?”

Mark: “That’s a great question. In the real world, lawmakers and public servants are continually making judgments about what is harmful or helpful to a community without imagining that such judgments are merely subjective. If truth-claims about what is harmful or helpful to a community have no grounding outside subjective bias, then our entire legal system would collapse. Now in the present case, dads and moms in our community have been arguing that there are rational grounds for knowing that certain children’s books (for example, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Identical by Ellen Hopkins, and Let's Talk About It, by Erika Moen) are harmful to the youth of our community because of the way these books describe child sex acts in graphic detail. This is an evidence-based claim that can be verified or falsified according to publicly-accessible information and objective criteria, and so we want to see a rigorous debate about that. But the debate our community desperately needs is being short-circuited by people who want to dismiss our concerns as mere 'bias.' Ironically, this is actually a form of anti-intellectualism among our opponents, similar to book-burning, because it absolves one from having to study the actual content of the concerns we are putting forward; it’s an attempt to make the problem go away without actually engaging in the content of our argumentation. It’s a lot easier to dismiss our concerns as a species of ‘bias’ than to investigate if what we are saying has rational justification.

But what you ask actually raises a bigger issue relating to the ethics discourse within library studies. For a long time the American Library Association (ALA) promoted the idea that librarians should strive to be value-neutral. But within the world of library studies it is increasingly understood that complete value-neutrality is not possible. This understanding is now reflected in the scholarship. Even the ALA has put out a public statement on information ethics, which recognizes that it is neither possible nor desirable to try to do librarianship with an ethically-neutral framework. It is also coming to be understood (for example, through some of the work of Jens-Erik Mai from the University of Copenhagen) that even something as simple as cataloging cannot be conducted from the standpoint of value-neutrality. For those outside the library world who don’t understand the complexity of these issues, populist appeals to free speech and value-neutrality can seem very compelling. That’s what we have going on in our small community now, where the media and left-wing activists have been fearmongering, whipping people up into a frenzy over book-banning without actually doing the difficult work of carefully examining the issues at stake.

Salvo: “But—and I’m going to give you a little push-back here—shouldn’t sexually explicit children’s books be banned? Isn’t book-banning sometimes a good thing?”

Mark: “Well again, to even use the language of ‘banning’ fails to understand how libraries work. As we’ve said before, a library is like a supermarket insofar as it cannot bring in every available item. It has to say ‘yes’ to this item and ‘no’ to that item. A library will make these selection decisions based on a number of considerations, including ethical criteria. Now does that mean the items it chooses not to have in its on-site collection are ‘banned’? Of course not, because those books are still available through the interlibrary loan process. At the end of the day, ‘book-banning’ is a false issue–a total red herring–that functions as a proxy for the real issues that people don’t want to talk about.”

Salvo: “And what are those real issues?”

Mark: “The real issue is that people are uncomfortable that the parents in our community would like to see a collection development policy based on an ethical selection process. Because its in vogue right now to think that ethics is relative we quickly default to tropes like, 'who’s to say that we shouldn’t add pornographic children’s books to our collection?' Yet because nobody wants to come right out and say we should have an ethics-free library, all they can do is reframe the question around book-banning and free speech. But those who make these types of straw-man arguments will not even define what they mean by ‘banning.’ If the library chooses not to add Book A to the collection for financial reasons, and it chooses not to add Book B to the collection for ethical reasons, does that mean that Book B has been banned but Book A hasn’t?”

Salvo: “When you explain it like this, it makes complete sense. So why has there been such a furor?”

Mark: “Once outlets like NPR and CNN began claiming that our community was in the grip of a book-banning frenzy, it created a lot of fear. When discussing the concerns of parents like me, CNN showed pictures of Neonazis, using footage from the 1970s. So this has created a lot of prejudice. It makes us seem like medieval type people who want to have book burning rituals or something like that. Once the debate was framed in these terms, it became very difficult to get people to think rationally, because our concerns could then be dismissed as crazy right-wing extremism.

Unfortunately the national media continues to dismiss these thoughtful perspectives as hysteria and right-wing extermism, using sloganeering about free speech as a weapon to try to silence these thoughtul considerations. But the parents of Bonners Ferry refuse to be intimidated and are fighting back. In the process they are giving courage to moms and dads throughout the United States who are engaged in similar battles to protect their youth, and preserve the integrity of their communities.

Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox!
Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/weaponizing-free-speech


Bioethics icon Bioethics Philosophy icon Philosophy Media icon Media Transhumanism icon Transhumanism Scientism icon Scientism Euthanasia icon Euthanasia Porn icon Porn Marriage & Family icon Marriage & Family Race icon Race Abortion icon Abortion Education icon Education Civilization icon Civilization Feminism icon Feminism Religion icon Religion Technology icon Technology LGBTQ+ icon LGBTQ+ Sex icon Sex College Life icon College Life Culture icon Culture Intelligent Design icon Intelligent Design

Welcome, friend.
to read every article [or subscribe.]