Don’t just condemn censors, confront them

Wednesday, May 10, 2000

(Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of the speech Paul McMasters delivered at the Maine Librarians Conference in Augusta earlier this week.)

“The author pauses before truth, one eye furtively upon the censor, the other leering at his audience. He gibbers, he capers, he thumbs his nose and fires off popguns, but the truth is not in him. …

“[T]ruth is fallen in the street, dragged back & forth in mud lest the censor see it. His integrity forfeit — pawned, gone & forgotten — the author juggles nonsense before the censor’s face, the sense of nonsense behind his back. …

“He is a writer. He is Prometheus. His is the guardianship of light. But fear infects him. And from leader — light bearer — he has fallen away to jester and dishonorable jape. Truth is falsified, falseness made more false, darkness dissipated not at all by his flameless fire.”

Gershon Legman, author of Love & Death, uttered those words more than half a century ago, but they are as fresh as this moment. And today, as they were then, they are a wake-up call to those of us who are tepid and temporizing in our opposition to the censors.

Legman’s words were directed at the too-clever-by-half writers who tried to elude censors rather than confront them directly. But it is not just writers who do that, is it?

How many of us wince a bit at Legman’s words? How many of us are capable of working up the necessary outrage and courage that it takes to keep the censor at bay?

In Congress, the courts, state legislatures and local governments, the cry goes up to silence speech that discomforts, upsets, offends.

Just about every type of speech one can think of is under attack today: sexual speech, violent speech, hate speech, unpatriotic speech, “coarse” speech, uncivil speech.

No medium of expression or communication is safe from this savaging: art, literature, music, television, movies, the Internet.

These battles are not far-away abstractions to the nation’s librarians.

In nearly every community across the land, library staffs and directors face constant and continuing battles to protect the materials they hold in our name.

In Zeeland, Mich., School Superintendent Gary Feenstra unilaterally banned the Harry Potter books by Scottish author J.K. Rowlings from the school library. As you know, this is part of widespread efforts to censor or boycott the popular children’s books.

Last week in Port Orchard, Wash., the school board denied a place on the required reading list to David Guterson’s award-winning and bestselling novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

In San Diego late last month, a judge sent local art-reference librarians scrambling to decide what to do about two books containing nude photographs of children — David Hamilton’s Twenty- Five Years as an Artist and Graham Ovenden’s State of Grace. The judge ruled that, when in the possession of a child molester, such photos were child pornography.

Also last month, the school board in Enid, Okla., had to turn back a unanimous recommendation from the textbook-review committee to remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain from the required reading list for American literature classes.

But the pressure is not always from the outside. Late last week, seven librarians in the Minneapolis system filed complaints of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying that patrons accessing pornography on library computers created a “hostile, offensive, palpably unlawful working environment.”

The city council quickly weighed in, demanding more restrictions on Internet access, that computer users to sign up in 30-minute increments and that patrons produce identification in order to use the computers.

Further — and this is real scary — police officers will regularly patrol the library to look for “activity on computers that may be in violation of Minnesota obscenity statutes.”

Last week, the Freedom House human rights organization issued its annual report on press censorship around the world. In this latest report, Leonard R. Sussman wrote an essay showing how easily and seamlessly censorship slips from one form of communication to the next, without slowing down or discriminating.

Sussman writes of widespread and deepening suppression of the word on the Net. He notes that speech is regularly and routinely suppressed by government in the name of national security or political, cultural, religious and ethnic values. But the true purpose is to control dissent and hold onto power.

Foreign governments do this by making computers too expensive, regulating Internet service providers, requiring licensing for private ownership of computers, setting up online surveillance systems, forcing the use of filtering and blocking systems, and by imposing outright censorship of private Web pages and e-mail.

Government is not so blatantly self-serving in the United States. Instead, it puts itself in the service of the majority or most vocal. Elected officials are no more courageous than the rest of us when it comes to appearing to oppose family values, religious righteousness, offended sensibilities or the welfare of the children.

Rather than overt censorship, we embrace filtering and blocking software, rating systems for all media, political initiatives and lawsuits to force libraries into lock step with the groups with resources, political clout and an agenda.

Why is censorship so persistent and pervasive, even in a free and open society like our own?

Let’s face it, the censor dwells deep within all of us. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to fan into flames those book-burning desires smoldering in our breasts. Not that any of us actually would censor anything ourselves, just that we might not protest too loudly or at all when the real censors come to call.

In the face of all these bluenoses wielding blue pencils, there is no one — not in the law-making bodies, not in the courts, not in academe, not in the press, not in public libraries — who is championing the idea of expanding freedom of expression, despite the fact that the majority of Americans consistently rate freedom of speech as the right they consider the most valuable.

There is little wonder, of course, that the censors quake in the presence of the power of words. Words allow us to witness mankind’s struggles to discern and distill life’s goodness and worth. Dare to intrude on that process, to deny certain words, and you damage truth and desecrate reason. Dare to strangle words and the author of words and you kill that which may be beyond our grasp but is lovingly embraced by our imaginings.

Such power infects the minds of the censors and makes them believe they can predict the effect of words on the minds of others. They believe they — and only they — can determine what is acceptable speech and what is not. They believe they — and only they — can wield the dull blades of their own prejudices to lop off the branches of intellectual freedom with no harm to the intellect or to the freedom.

That turns out to be an illusion, of course. To prune one branch of this particular tree is to occasion a withering of all branches, until the collective mind is sapped of all vigor. Such a loss must be accompanied by a cultural madness of an excruciating kind.

What can we do to halt this slide into censorship?

We can start by being a little less generous in “seeing the censors’ point.” That’s like extending a hand to the encircling wolves nipping at our heels, lunging at our flanks, and driving us toward the edge of the cliff.

We must remember that anything of consequence in the care of libraries offends someone somewhere. That to remove or restrict access to controversial material is to invite the ultimate suppression of all material.

We must remember — as much as they are the principles we have learned to live by — negotiation, compromise and tolerance simply don’t work when it comes to censorship. Censors are hard-eyed and single-minded. They are never satisfied. Rather than being mollified, they are emboldened by our tolerance and understanding. When we feel their pain we feed their fever for control.

We must keep firmly in mind that it is not just the First Amendment rights of journalists or authors or librarians that we defend, but of those millions who visit your libraries.

We must find ways to remind the censors among us that censorship is always imposed for the best of reasons with the worst of results.

We must keep in mind that no matter what technologies we may concoct to communicate our speech, or what new era we may find ourselves in, the nature of speech itself never changes. It must be free to be meaningful.

We must learn that it is not enough to teach the First Amendment. Or to defend it when it seems convenient. We must model the First Amendment, also. Not just for the kids or our colleagues. But for the censors, too.

Finally, we must be prepared to defend bad words for good principles.

As perverse, as sick as the arrangement of some words and images can be, we must rise to their defense with as much passion and conviction as we do for more acceptable expression. When we have the intellectual courage to allow the good with the bad, we can see that good is more real, more desirable, and more attainable for having had the opportunity to regard the face of evil and to reject it — or change it into good. As surely as misanthropic expression attracts the weakened mind and repels the fearful mind, it quickens the civilized mind.

The First Amendment stands solidly against the censor’s arrogance. It says the majority will not dictate the speech, thought, or taste of the individual. It says that the democratic ideal fails its magnificent promise unless we recognize that fear and ignorance are never a match for courage and confidence — and, yes, confrontation — in the cause of liberty and liberation.

The censors have been among us from the beginning, exhorting us to cower like brutes in caves, snorting and stamping in fear at the wondrous things dancing outside in the sunlight.

They urged us to take the torch to books in the Dark Ages.

And today in the Information Age, they taunt us into using the computer to “burn” many volumes with a single keystroke. And there will be no ashes as evidence of our perfidy.

As civilized beings, surely we can resist the censor’s demands. But we must do more than condemn them. We must confront them.

Throughout the history of this democracy, the keepers of books in our society have been the keepers of the flame of freedom. Once more, they are being challenged and threatened by the burners and banners.

Like the periodicals, the videos, the Internet and other media that have found a safe and secure place in America’s libraries, every book, regardless of its content, has something to offer.

Lord Byron reminds us that we must protect all words, the bad and the good:

“Words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew, upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.”

Thankfully, there are those among us who understand that, who do have the courage to confront the censors directly, to point out their betrayal of both truth and freedom. Librarians have never been and must never become jesters and dishonorable japes.

They must remain the guardians of intellectual freedom.

They must never allow the censor’s torch to obscure freedom’s light.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at