On the Line for the First Amendment

A July 1995 interview with Judith Krug, director of ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, who died April 11. The towering champion of free speech and vigorous opponent of censorship shared her views with American Libraries in a conversation with Senior Editor Beverly Goldberg that was published in September 1995.

May 27, 2009

Looking back, what would you say was the biggest threat to intellectual freedom that you have encountered? The biggest threat that we have not only faced in the past, but that we face today and I presume we'll face tomorrow, is ourselves. And this threat becomes much more pronounced as outside pressures begin to grow. What do I mean? We are not the biggest profession in the world. We’re not the best paid profession in the world. We’re not the most highly regarded profession in the world. [Society has] given short shrift to all the professions that helped mold our individuals, our people, and therefore our future. And I’m referring specifically to the teaching profession, which has never been held in high regard and yet has created the leaders of tomorrow and continues to do so. We’re in the same boat. We have such an important role to play in this society and yet we have never been accorded the respect or the money or the understanding that I think we deserve. As the pressures grow externally, and because we are who we are, we sometimes tend to say, “Well I don’t want to go to the wall for one book or one group of materials.” It becomes a situation where we let the outside determine how we are going to stand up. That has always been our threat, and yet in the end we have never backed down. Although I suspect that people on occasion do look around and say, “Wait a minute, that’s my job on the line.” But that’s not very often. In terms of external pressures, is there any one group or influence that you’d identify today as being the most threatening? No. I know that we are always trying to identify where our threats are coming from. The truth is, our threats come from across the spectrum of social and political thought. And while today more of our concerns, more of the threats are coming from what we would call the right of center, this is not true forever and ever. We have gone through periods where our biggest threats have been from the left of center, where people have wanted to remove materials that did not portray, for instance, minority groups in the way that they thought minority groups should be portrayed. However, I wish there were one group. If there were, we could focus our time and our effort and our resources. But since there’s not, we’re spread out all over. I always feel like I’m splattered all over the country. But again, we are dealing with human beings. If [patrons] have a complaint about the library, we have to listen to them, and we have to treat them with respect. If we don’t, then we are accused of having our own agenda, and that, I think, becomes one of the issues that we have to deal with very regularly, and that we have to be very careful about. If we have an agenda, it is protection of the First Amendment. Libraries in this country cannot operate unless we can stand foursquare on the First Amendment. And if that becomes a partisan position, well, OK I guess if I have to be partisan I will be partisan on behalf of the First Amendment. And yet, that First Amendment partisanship means that we have to provide everyone the opportunity to speak. In recent years, how important has it been for libraries to have policies in place when challenges come? It is the most important thing that can be there. Period. It is more important than anything. Many, many years ago when we were just developing what is now the intellectual freedom program, Bill North was counsel to the American Library Association, and he used to say, “Our policy stands as the White Cliffs of Dover. It gives you the bulwark, it gives you the place to stand and fight another day.” If I’ve done nothing else in my career but convince people that they have to have policy and then help them develop good policy, I will have considered my career a success. Now, the second part of policy is procedure to implement it. And that is equally important. But before you have procedure, you have to have that policy. How can librarians best defend their policies, and more importantly, intellectual freedom principles, in light of a recent trend to rewrite the rules? For instance, in Rutland, Vermont, as the result of a challenge to Daddy’s Roommate the library board has formed a committee to reconsider how librarians there go about deciding where materials are going to be placed [AL, July/Aug. 1995, p. 630]. In Loudoun County, Virginia, the library board edited the Library Bill of Rights and took out three passages containing anticensorship language [AL, Apr. 1995, p. 288–289]. What can librarians do? The problem is there aren’t any quick fixes. What we can do is continue to do what we’ve always done—and that is educate, educate, educate. And if we keep explaining to people who we are and what we are, why the First Amendment is important to libraries, then we begin to make headway. Because while we are doing this education, we are also bringing in people. We’re causing them to think, “Oh, OK. I understand that. I don’t like everything that the library has, but I can understand why they have to have it.” We have to serve the information needs of all the community and for so long “the community” that we served was the visible community—the middle class and even upper-middle class and upper class. Below middle class, people tend to be less visible—they’re not invisible, but they are certainly less visible. And so, if we didn’t see those people, then we didn’t have to include them in our service arena. The truth is, we do have to. I’m not sure if some of my callers are real happy about that, but they’re going to be part of our service community if we have what they need. Now [that] we are reaching out, we’re seeing more of these people. Certainly we have a way to go. Certainly with the new technology we have even a longer way to go and more things that we have to do. But at least we’re making a start. Actually over the weekend, I was editing some of the articles that we are putting in the September 1995 Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom and one of the things I was editing was Sasha Allyson’s [author of Daddy’s Roommate] remarks that he gave at [Annual Conference]—you know, talking about minorities whose needs we didn’t serve. We never served the gay community. Now, we didn’t serve the gay community because there weren’t materials to serve them. You can’t buy materials if they’re not there. But part of our responsibility is to identify what we need and then to begin to ask for it. Another thing we have to be real careful about is that even though the materials that come out initially aren’t wonderful, it’s still incumbent upon us to have that voice represented in the collection. This was exactly what happened in the early days of the women’s movement, and as the black community became more visible and began to demand more materials that fulfilled their particular information needs. We can’t sit back and say, “Well, they’re not the high-quality materials I’m used to buying.” They’re probably not, but if they are the only thing available, then I believe we have to get them into the library. The primary purpose of ALA Goal 2000 is to identify ALA as closely with intellectual participation in the twenty-first century as it is with intellectual freedom in the twentieth century. Where does that leave intellectual freedom? The truth is, I think they’re one and the same. I just think that it’s a different perspective. I don’t see how in the world you can have intellectual participation unless you have intellectual freedom to begin with because intellectual freedom means the provision of ideas and information regardless of the format in which they appear, and making sure that it is available and accessible to those people who want to use it. Unless those people use it, they’re not capable of participating, intellectually or any other way. So they’re hand in glove, and it’s just the next step after intellectual freedom. Where does that leave intellectual freedom? The same place it is now—as the foundation of American librarianship. How will OIF be working with ALA’s new Office for Information Technology Policy—what resources of theirs will you be drawing from and vice versa? We are going to have a person in Washington and we will be intimately involved in what happens in that office, and in fact on the whole Washington scene. You can’t start a program—you can’t go into the twenty-first century—without taking what is best and what is strongest from what we have already done and moving it along to become an integral whole with what we’re reaching for. You know, many, many years ago—well, maybe only many years ago—Meshach Taylor made a statement—this was during a panel discussion that I participated in before the opening of The Big River at the Goodman Theater. Now, The Big River is one of the stage versions of Huckleberry Finn. Meshach Taylor was playing Nigger Jim, and one of the questions that came up from the audience during this panel was, “Do you really feel that Huckleberry Finn is appropriate for young people to read? Given the name of Nigger Jim, isn’t it too embarrassing or too frightening, or doesn’t it raise specters for young people that they would be better off without?” And Meshach Taylor answered, “You don't know how you got to where you’re at today unless you know where you came from yesterday. And if you don't know where you came from yesterday to get to where you're at today, you’ll never know how to go forward into tomorrow.” The truth is we can never get to intellectual participation—to use that analogy—unless we know how we got to intellectual freedom today. And if we don’t know how we built the road so that intellectual freedom did become the key phrase of twentieth-century American librarianship, we will never know how to get to intellectual participation in the twenty-first century. You don’t leave your strengths behind. You take them along with you. What do you see as the reason for the difficulties in reaching agreement on the language of the electronic interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights [AL, July/Aug. 1995, p. 676]? I think there are lots of questions, issues—and you notice I’m not using [the word] problems. I think that—and the Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) did this knowingly—we pushed through an interpretation. We wrote it the first weekend in March and it went to [ALA] Council the last week in June. That is faster than we have ever taken any intellectual freedom policy forward. We did it for what we considered to be a good and sufficient reason—namely, we were being harassed to get this policy on the books. For the same reason that we need material selection policies, we needed a policy dealing with the internet. It’s here. People don’t know what to do with it, and what we tried to do in that interpretation was lay down some basic guidelines. Unfortunately, the basic guidelines were misinterpreted. There was some concern that this policy demanded that everyone be treated equally, and there are lots of levels of service that we provide in many arenas. Not having worked in a library per se for many years, I am not sure exactly how these issues are handled today, but, years ago young people did not get the same level of service as an adult— mainly because young people could not absorb the same level of information and ideas. Now, is this differing service? Well, it is if you’re talking about trying to get the same materials to everyone. It’s not if you're trying to provide materials containing information that is suitable for the age, for the maturity level, for the experience level, etc. So I think there was a basic misunderstanding in that regard. I think there was a basic misunderstanding in regard to fees. But the truth is, we already have an interpretation on the books and the IFC was saying, “Here are the basic tenets, these are the basic rules that we have already said represent our profession.” I mean, they were OK for “Economic Barriers to Information Access” but they’re not OK when it comes to the current virtual reality? We can't operate like that. Well, the document will get through. It will become policy of the American Library Association. I suspect that it might not get through with every word that is currently in version 1.4, which is what we are working on right now, [but] I have a feeling that it is fairly close to what we will see in the future. I would have been a lot happier if the interpretation had gone through, particularly since we were holding the fifth edition of the Intellectual Freedom Manual until after Conference in the hopes that we would have a policy statement. We will be going, to press and the fifth edition will be available before Midwinter. But we are going to make provisions to accommodate the new interpretation if indeed it is passed at Midwinter ’96, or even Annual Conference ’96. You know, the IFC will survive. It is not the first time one of our policies has been thrown back, and I would wager to say it is not going to be the last time. The general public, the media, and the profession seem much more alarmed about the availability of sexually graphic materials on the internet than they are about it being available in other kinds of formats. How do you account for that? I account for that because most of the people who are expressing such grave concern are totally ignorant about the Net and what it is. Now, I am not the whiz of the century and maybe that explains why I have been trying to find some of these groups for ages and I can’t, and I’m really upset. There was a study that was done at Carnegie Mellon University by a student who said 85% of the images on the Net are “pornographic.” He only looked at “alt.sex” newsgroups, bulletin boards, etc. Well, of course 85% of the images are pornographic if that’s all you're looking at. So people are not proficient; they don’t understand what’s there. When you turn on your machine, [a pornographic image is] not the first thing that pops out at you. I think that kids, who are much more proficient on the Net, can probably access such information. I suspect they are not doing it in schools and libraries, because when you have a limited number of machines and limited amounts of time, they have to do their real work. Where this is probably happening is at home, if it’s happening at all. And you know what? That’s not librarians’ responsibility, it’s not the school’s responsibility, and it certainly isn’t government’s responsibility. It’s the parents’ responsibility. Now I have this radical solution. And every time I give this radical solution, somebody looks at me like I’m out of my mind. But we did this with television, we do it with rock music or gangsta rap, or anything else that bothers people, and now we can do it with computers: If you don’t like what your kids are listening to, use your index finger and turn off the machine. That’s not working? I recommend that we have Congress pass a law that gives parents the right to turn off the video, to turn off the television, to turn off the record player, to turn off the computer. Now if that isn’t a radical idea. I mean, you can [already] do it. Parents can lay down rules, they can work with their kids. I would like to keep the government out of this area. I don’t think the government has the responsibility, the knowledge, the background, the right to be that much involved in individuals’ rights, particularly when these rights deal with First Amendment access to information and ideas. What do you think of the filtering devices that screen out online discussion groups and internet sites, such as SurfWatch? I think they’re wonderful for parents to buy and put on the machines that they have in their homes. I think it’s great. I think it’s a disaster for libraries or schools to attempt to fulfill the responsibilities of parents in this regard. I probably would not buy a mechanism like SurfWatch. I don’t need a SurfWatch determining that certain materials, certain programs, certain music, certain whatever, is not appropriate for my children. And to people who say, “Well I have my kids under control. It’s all those poor little kids whose parents aren’t home to watch them…” Well you can't honestly tell me that the parents who aren’t there to guide their children are going to have the wherewithal in most instances to buy a SurfWatch and to turn this responsibility over to a thing, to an electronic mechanism. The other thing that bothers me: You understand, of course, that at this point SurfWatch is not willing to tell us what groups they have eliminated. They consider this proprietary information. Now [SurfWatch is] working out, from what I understand, some kind of give-and-take that will allow people to request that they consider some particular newsgroup or bulletin board be eliminated. I haven’t heard anything positive about whether you could request some particular bulletin board, newsgroup, etc., to be unlocked. The reason I’m concerned about that is that at one point, [access to] anything dealing with gays or lesbians was also being eliminated [by SurfWatch] because that deals with sex. I mean, nobody who considers himself or herself part of the gay community does anything except engage in sex, right? So that’s one problem. Carry this one step further, where they’re talking about V-chips, choice chips, or other chips. That would eliminate a whole range of “inappropriate” information and if the networks themselves can’t make a determination, then indeed Congress is going to step in. Well, I don’t need the networks telling me what is inappropriate any more than I need SurfWatch determining what is appropriate or inappropriate for my children. With stories appearing in the media of would-be molesters seeking out minors in interactive chat rooms, parents are understandably concerned about their children’s safety on the Net. What implications are there for open-access policies in libraries? I guess so much of this is common sense. The truth is that when a young person gets an invitation over the internet, that young person has to exercise some brain power. Say it’s a young man and someone convinces him to go someplace. We’ve had a case like this where a young man, a 16-year-old in this case, was convinced to meet somebody in person that he had struck up a conversation with on the Net. And he got up out of his chair, left his house, went to meet this man, met him, the man convinced him to go back to his apartment or his home with him, so he made another decision, he went to his home, where he was raped. And then, of course, the parents blamed the internet. That’s part of what this is all about, that in educating our children we teach them their primary responsibility is to think. And I do think [parents] have to be alert to the fact that even if they don’t know how to use the internet themselves, they [must] have enough sense to say to their child, “You would not go into a car that drove up beside you and a stranger got out and said, ‘Come take a ride with me.’” We’ve been teaching our children this for 50 years. Well, they just extend it. Just because somebody gets on the internet and says, “Come and meet me,” you don’t do it. You use your head. Wake up! Parents are concerned? Parents should be concerned. But the solution is not censoring the internet. The child is very, very important, but you have to deal with the problem realistically. How can you censor the Net? I mean, that’s worldwide. I don’t care how many censorship laws are passed by Congress or anyone else. They’re not going to work. Any kid—I mean anybody—who knows what they’re doing on the internet can get around that, number one. Number two: We only control what happens in the United States of America. The internet is a global network. Time magazine recently reported that Bill Gates is going to be involved in an effort to establish a rating system for the internet like the MPAA system for movies. What’s your opinion of an effort like that, and is it time for librarians to add rating systems to their materials for user guidance? As long as it is Bill Gates doing a rating system, rate away Billy boy. It’s OK, I don’t care. We would not adopt Bill Gates’s rating system any more than we would adopt the MPAA rating system. Because basically we, being the library profession, do not believe that private rating systems should be codified into public policy, which is why we fight the MPAA rating system as all appropriate opportunities arise. This does not mean, however, that libraries should not have such rating guides available to their clientele. The guidelines that we use—in this case, this is the IFC—is if the producer has [added] the MPAA code, then indeed it should stay. We should not be adding this code to materials that we bring into the library. If Bill Gates tried to rate ALAOIF we would immediately remove it because that’s not appropriate. But if Bill Gates wants to rate these and then send them out to the public, well OK. Chances are if it were in a form that were convenient for libraries, we would put it on the shelves. There are lots of rating systems out there, you understand. Lots of them. All the way from the far right-of-center to the far left-of-center and they’re fascinating. They’re absolutely fascinating. Should libraries have them all? That becomes a selection decision. I would not deign to tell libraries what they should or shouldn’t acquire. Librarians across the country are being asked by parents to help monitor their children’s reading by issuing restricted borrowing cards or denying access to adult materials, that kind of thing. How can librarians let parents know they care without breaking with the Library Bill of Rights? Again, my same boring answer—education. I think that one of the things that libraries have to do, that we have not done in the past, is to bring parents into the library and help them understand how they can begin to rely on librarians to help them help their children. In other words, I don’t think that parents understand exactly what we’re making available to young people today because libraries have changed so radically over the years; children’s rooms in libraries are so exciting that sometimes I walk around with my mouth open. I think one way to do this is to begin to do little workshops, not real intense, but just help [parents] understand what’s available, how we can help them guide their children in appropriate reading material and viewing material and listening material. And, yes indeed, how we can help them help their children use the internet, use computers in a positive, growing way, so that children can grow intellectually. We certainly can’t start restricting children in a day and an age where they’re getting more and more and more in schools. And what are we going to do? Turn around and say, “Oh! Well, you might be able to use this wonderful machine in school. You can’t use it in your library”? I mean, we’re going to build library users for the future, not alienate them so they never want to come into libraries any more. The one thing we can’t do is to begin to censor children or to limit their ability to have access to the ideas that they feel ready to deal with, and [that] comes earlier and earlier every year. Can librarians claim on the one hand to be eminently qualified to guide and nourish reading and on the other to claim that they are merely supplying whatever it is the child wants, with no control over whether or not it’s appropriate, such as a 10-year-old bringing books by the Marquis de Sade to the checkout desk? I guess I’m really hard-pressed to envision a 10-year-old checking out the Marquis de Sade. I mean, I read it when I was in college and I guess I was really sheltered, but I found it shocking. I wouldn’t have understood it when I was younger, and I can’t believe that children are so much more advanced sexually today than they were then. They are somewhat, but I think one of the things we forget is that young people need certain amounts of experience before they can understand the printed word. And I guess my own feeling is that if a child of 10 checked out the Marquis de Sade, he or she would probably put it down very fast because they would be very bored. If you don’t understand what you’re reading, you become bored very quickly. Which, of course, is begging your question. But it’s a hard question, because on the one hand we do have a responsibility to help children expand their thought processes, to expand their horizons and their environments, and I feel that one of the least dangerous ways is through books. If young girls want to know about prostitution, I sure as hell would rather they read a book on prostitution than go out and try it on the street. If a young person wants to know about AIDS or homosexuality, I would much rather they read books about these topics and not try to experiment until they’re old enough to fully understand their actions. At the same time, I do think we have to work with parents. And in the end, I think it is the parents’ responsibility to tell them what is appropriate. When my mother looked at me and said, “I don't think you should be reading that,” I guess I didn’t read it. When I found something I guess I didn’t want my children to read, I looked at them and I said, “I don't think you should be reading this.” And if they did read it, they did it surreptitiously. And if they did, it didn’t hurt them. I always, always, come down on the side of less control over materials and information that you can find in the library, and providing more opportunity for people to expand their horizons by reading and listening and viewing more widely rather than less widely. If a school librarian who’s working in a district with a lot of gang problems has a selection policy that omits materials on handguns and weaponry, would you consider her to be practicing censorship? In other words, where does selection policy end and where does censorship begin? Another hard question. It’s interesting, though, because the first thing I thought about is, what are you doing about the encyclopedias? The truth is, there’s no way to eliminate all the information. There’s no way to sanitize your collection. And I would rather control the kind of information I bring in. There are legitimate materials that deal with handguns and weaponry that probably should be in the library. There is a real fine line between censorship and selection, and we have to be very cognizant of that line. And I guess in the end, I still go back to Lester Asheim’s definition. [In 1953] he said that in selection, we try to identify one reason to include the material in your collection, whereas with censorship you only need one reason to exclude it. And to, me that says it all. The one reason to include material outweighs multiple reasons to exclude it. Posted on April 17, 2009; corrected April 21, 2009.