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The Dilemma of Library Censorship

E. Calvin Beisner

Calvin Beisner is a visiting lecturer at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

In her 1991 annual report, the librarian of the local public library decried the descent of “book censors” like a “plague” on her library. Yet what she condemns in others she practices herself.

She rightly called the effort by some to exclude certain sexually explicit and pro-homosexual books from the library’s collection, or to shield child patrons from them, censorship. But she also reported her own rejection of Ku Klux Klan literature on the grounds that it was “a revisionist history that attempts to disprove that the Holocaust could have ever happened.”

We can respect her courage in standing firm against the KKK. But her blindness to her own censorship is typical of the inability of many bureaucrats to see their own infringements on others’ liberties.

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines a censor as “an official who examines materials (as publications or films) for objectionable matter” and the verb censor as “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable.”

The librarian is an official of the library. She examined the material donated by the KKK—how else could she describe it? She determined that it was objectionable. She suppressed or deleted it from the library’s collection. She is a censor.

She imposes her censorship on all who support the library. There is nothing wrong with that. It is unavoidable. The library has limited funds to purchase, catalogue, and circulate books, limited space in which to display them, and limited personnel to care for them. Selection—receiving some, rejecting others—is unavoidable in the finite world of libraries, just as in every other finite world.

And selection necessarily rests on some standards—however ill defined, and whether adopted only personally by the librarian or officially by the library board. The only alternative is to put all book titles into a lottery and select strictly by chance—which might do nasty things to the library’s budget and its usefulness to patrons. (It would also make much of the librarian’s job unnecessary.)

The librarian’s errors are several. First, she either fails to recognize censorship for what it is, or dishonestly pretends it isn’t what it is. Confusion seems the more likely, granted that in the same report she contradictorily cites the Freedom to Read Statement’s directive to libraries, “It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those which are unorthodox or unpopular with the majority,” and yet reports her rejection of KKK materials.

Second, her blanket condemnation of censorship (except her own, which she doesn’t recognize) implies that censorship is necessarily a bad thing. But like most unavoidable things, censorship may be good or bad. Deciding which in any given case requires careful judgment informed by standards properly applicable to the case.

Third, she mistakes those standards. She insists that those who would like certain books excluded from the library, or given restricted access, threaten the First Amendment to the Constitution. This is patently absurd.

The relevant part of the Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of . . . the press.” Neither the citizens who opposed placing the sexually explicit books in the library, nor the city, its council, or its library board is Congress. The First Amendment does not govern them.

Even if it did, it would not apply to this particular action. The critics have not opposed publication and circulation of the questioned books. They have simply opposed subsidy of their circulation by the taxes that support the library. The courts have ruled repeatedly that while the First Amendment protects expression, it does not entail any right to have expression promoted by any level or branch of government.

Neither, by the way, does the First Amendment prohibit any government official’s promoting any expression or idea, which is why the librarian’s unbalanced promotion of five liberal books and a Democratic presidential candidate in an April 15 newspaper column, however distasteful, was not unconstitutional.

Finally, she insists that the debate is over people’s “right to read.” It is not. It is over the standards by which books shall be selected for, or rejected from, the public library. Her opponents believe the selection should closely reflect the values of the citizens who pay for the library.

Therein lies the great difficulty not only of public libraries but also of every venture of government into the promotion of ideas—including public schools. It is difficult for many people to identify their own values, let alone to express them. It is more difficult still to ascertain the values of a majority, or even a plurality, so as to ensure that public policy promotes them. Even if we could do that with reasonable certainty on any single issue, that would not be enough; the values of the minority would reasonably demand minority representation.

Extending this argument to its logical conclusion prompts the simple but impracticable solution of polling the public on every issue to see what percent embraces each of a potentially unlimited number of options, and then adjusting government action to ensure that it promotes all of the different views in precise proportion to the segments of the public that embrace them. If we think government is slow and unwieldy and its policy is incoherent now, we shall find it infinitely more so if we adopt such a tactic.

But if time and expense prohibit the library’s determining all its selections by repeated public polling, some other standard of selection becomes necessary. Aside from this fastidious reflection of public values, only three other standards are possible: the whim of the officials who make the decisions (we call this tyranny, and in most public libraries it is the status quo), dominant public expression in open debate (which rapidly degenerates into the tyranny of special interests, particularly those who have little better to do with their time than to attend public meetings), or some moral criteria.

The two tyrannies are objectionable, but so is the option of resorting to some moral criteria. Whose criteria shall they be? Who shall determine them? In a society committed both to pluralism and to public expenditure to promote learning, thought, and ideas, the dilemma admits no solution.

What shall we do? Consider a radical idea: end government’s role in promoting ideas and restore its original role of protecting the freedom to express ideas. Make libraries private, not public, and force no one to pay for books he detests. Private libraries that wish to stock books promoting fornication or homosexuality, or racism, or democracy, or Christianity, or paganism, or tyranny, or liberalism, or conservatism, or any other notion or perversion—may do so. But they may not force anyone to pay the bills for them.

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