Librarians and the Threat to Free Political Speech

Why librarians should back the Citizens United decision

August 31, 2011

As librarians, we support freedom of speech and freedom of access to information. In early 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that increased these freedoms. Known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the decision declared unconstitutional some statutory restrictions on political speech—restrictions that carried the threat of fine or imprisonment for merely engaging in political speech.

By removing those unconstitutional limits, the court’s decision brought speech and election law in line with the realities of modern mass communication, including social media and other internet-based speech. The decision overturned aged statutes that were enacted long before the internet, email, and social networking even existed.

Specifically, Citizens United overturned some limits on corporate political speech. Under the old statutes, corporations—which are essentially associations of individuals working together—were regulated as to what they could publish on their websites, in pamphlets, and on broadcast and cable media. Those opposing the decision fear that the quantity of political ads that corporations’ and labor unions’ deep pockets can fund will drown out those with less cash, even though strongly enforced regulations require disclosure of the sponsors of those ads to provide needed context.

By ruling to strike down these restrictions, the Supreme Court created a more open stage for political discourse. As librarians, we should welcome unrestricted political speech and endeavor to help make it accessible to our users.

The threat

Unfortunately, a political movement has emerged that aims to restore those restrictions on political speech. Organizations such as Move to Amend and the cleverly named Citizens United against Citizens United seek to restore statutory restrictions on political speech, including restrictions on the right of groups such as unions and corporations to publish information that explains and promotes the organizations’ points of view. In fact, Move to Amend wants to amend the U.S. Constitution so that laws criminalizing some political speech would once again be allowable.

This anti–free speech movement is the moral equivalent of a book banning by excluding political speech some find objectionable—in this case, corporate political speech. In contrast, librarians fear no speech, value the marketplace of ideas, and want to help patrons access information about all sides of political issues. We should abhor the legitimization of censorship that these groups aim to add to the Constitution.

ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual (7th edition) states, “Society makes an equal commitment to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas regardless of the communication medium used, the content of work, and the viewpoints of both the author and the receiver of information.” These pro-restriction groups seek to achieve the opposite of those free-speech values by limiting access to the information citizens need and deserve in order to make voting decisions. It is akin to removing all books from a library’s collection that support a certain political view. That is censorship.

What we can do

Librarians need to understand the positive impact of Citizens United and how this decision is meritorious for lifting restrictions on political speech and supporting the values expressed in the Intellectual Freedom Manual.

Secondly, librarians need to continue doing what we do best regarding information in general and political speech in particular: Collect it, catalog it, mediate its discovery, and preserve it. Restricting political speech is anathema to the core values of librarianship; if speech from certain entities is restricted, we cannot make it available to our users.

Finally, we must collaboratively oppose the groups seeking to make it constitutional to allow restrictions on political debate in the United States. Regardless of their political values, all librarians should unite to oppose speech restrictions, censorship, and the proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the banning of some political publications, including some internet-based political speech.

JEFFREY BEALL is metadata librarian and assistant professor at the Auraria Library of the University of Colorado in Denver.


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