Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Happy summer, everyone. And welcome back to So To Speak: The Free Speech Podcast, where every other week, we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I’m Nico Perrino, and I am your host of So To Speak, and the director of communications here at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education.
As many of you know, I’ve been working full time in the free speech world for a while now. It’s been over seven years, I believe. And in those seven years, it’s been my experience that one of the greatest bastions for free speech support rests in libraries with librarians. And in the few weeks, there have been a few library free expression controversies that have captured headlines.
There’s one at Nebraska’s Doane University, involving a librarian’s creation of a “Parties of the Past” exhibit that featured a photo from the 1920s in which a person was wearing black face, and for curating that exhibit, the librarian was suspended. The results of the case of censorship at the University of Central Arkansas involving a pro-LGBTQ library sign, that featured a Lady Gaga quote.
And then, there’s the ever-controversial drag queen story hour programming that has occurred at libraries across the country for years now, and it has angered some social conservative, and actually started a civil war of sorts within the conservative, intellectual community.
With libraries and free speech again in the news, I thought it was about time we finally got a librarian on the show to talk about how libraries fit into the free speech conversation today and historically. And who better to address the topic than James, or Jamie LaRue, who was a librarian for decades before becoming the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and also the Freedom to Read Foundation.
I first met Jamie and a meeting in Washington DC last month, and was impressed by his articulateness. I don’t know that he’s ever uttered an “um” in his life, but I was also impressed by his stories, from the front lines defending libraries from censorship efforts over the years. So, I invited him on the show to share these stories with you all, and to discuss the aforementioned controversies.
We recorded this conversation over the internet on Thursday June 20th. And a quick show note before we begin, we ran into some technical difficulties, so the sound might be a little bit off in this episode, but I hope it’s not horribly so. In any case, we should have a transcript available soon, if you prefer to read the interview. Now, onto the show.
Well, Jamie, thanks for coming on the podcast today.
Jamie LaRue: My pleasure.
Nico Perrino: I want to start with asking you, perhaps, the most simple question. What lead you to become a librarian?
Jamie LaRue: You know, I think that it came down to a couple things. One is that from my earliest memories, the first time I saw a book mobile, I just felt like, is this for real? Can I really come in here, and take books home with me, and read them? And I just was amazed by the benevolence of a society that would give you all the stuff for free, and give you respectful, interested, interesting librarians to talk to. So, I’ve been interested in libraries since I was six years old. When I was in 7th grade, I actually founded the library club at my junior high school, so that was an early version of geeks are us.
Nico Perrino: Well, you were a librarian from 1990 to 2014, correct?
Jamie LaRue: Well, actually, much earlier than that. I started in 1982 as a professional librarian. I was working as a circulation department head in Springfield, Illinois. Then I became an assistant director. Then in moved to Colorado to be a library director in Greeley, and then I moved to Douglas County in 1990, where I ran a library from 1990 through 2014.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, you were a librarian at quite the time to be a librarian because you were a librarian during the rise of the internet. How did that shape your perspective on the field?
Jamie LaRue: Really fascinating. And in fact, when I got started, first at Greeley, the first big wave of automation was to convert to the card catalog to the electronic catalog, and so that laid the groundwork for the next big connection. In 1996, I think we became the first, probably, public library in the state of Colorado to the internet, and have its own website, and all that. And it absolutely was a game changer. We thought that now everybody will come in and they were use us to search remote library catalogs, and the next thing you know, people were showing up to do email, and Facebook, and social media. And it really fundamentally shifted our notion for how a library became a window to the world.
Nico Perrino: And what about your interest in intellectual freedom? I see that in 2007, you won an award for intellectual freedom. What was happening while you were a librarian that lead to that?
Jamie LaRue: Well, when I first became a director in 1990 of the Douglas County Libraries, I had had maybe one challenge. A challenge means an attempt to restrict access, or to remove a book from the library. And it was just one, very minor. And when I was in Douglas County, I was there for about three months, and I was getting one a week. And I thought, why am I getting so many challenges?
And it turns out that about 30 miles south of Douglas County was the Focus on the Family, which was an evangelical group led by Dr. James Dobson, and they had targeted my library as a way to say libraries are not family friendly, and we have to remove everything that would be offensive to this evangelical conservative Christian base, and we became a test case for them.
So, over the next 24 years that I was there, I had over 250 challenges, not only to books, but to exhibits, and art, and speakers, and virtually everything that a library offers. So, I got a lot of practice talking to people that were complaining about library materials.
Nico Perrino: And was the concern over intellectual freedom and access to materials in libraries something that was at the top of your mind prior to that, or was it something that you became interested in by trial by fire?
Jamie LaRue: Very much trial by fire. And I guess I thought that before then, I would talk to the occasional librarian who would say, no, they would get challenged, and they would talk about the difficulty of it, but it didn’t seem to be happening all that frequently. But in Douglas County, it was so strange that for a while, I was getting one a week. And I thought, well, why is that? And the more I thought about that, the more I began to understand that there was some significant underlying patterns.
So, in 2007, I actually wrote a book about it, because I said, first, I thought, well, it looks like it was a religious versus secular, or it was conservative; a tendency towards censorship on the conservative a religious side. But over time, and Douglas County at this point was very, very rapidly growing, and we were the fastest growing county in the United States, which meant that there was a flood with baby boomers with children moving into this county.
And suddenly, I realized that there was a generational dynamic that was driving a lot of these censorship attempts in my library, and they were no longer coming just from the right, or just from the religious group. They were coming from a generation.
Ans so, my big insight that I got from that time was that 99% of the challenges that I received fell into one of two categories: they came from parents with children between the ages of four and six, or parents of children between the ages of 14 and 16. And so, instead of politics; instead of religion, it was really far more human than that. It was about these periods in a child’s life where there is a fundamental shift.
You’re going from the end of infancy to the beginning of childhood, that’s four to six, where you lose control over the environment of the child, and they’re suddenly exposed to many things that you may not approve of, and then 14 to 16, which is the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. And so, in both cases, what was going on was a surge in overprotectiveness on the part of parents to say that the best way that I can look out for my child is to preserve their innocence; to preserve their ignorance about the world. And that really changed the way that I thought about censorship, and I how I talked to people about it.
Nico Perrino: And was there a particular kind of content that they were most concerned with? I know you said earlier, the main driver was the age of the child, but you were a librarian when Harry Potter came out, and I recall when I was in school, there being some censorship attempts surrounding Harry Potter because of sorcery and magic. Were there particular pieces of content that parents were most concerned with?
Jamie LaRue: Yeah, there were. I can point to some of the ones that seem to generate the greatest controversy. And I remember it was, Daddy’s Wedding, I think it was. And it was one of the very first children’s books that was about a man who had left his wife for another man, and the boy was trying to come to grips with that. But much to my surprise when I was trying to say, is it sexual; is it LGBT stuff; what’s the common denominator? The number one challenge that I received as a type of literature as fairy tales. And that just fascinated me.
And I remember on one day, I got two challenges to Little Red Riding Hood, and the first version of it, Little Red is going off, and she’s got a basket, and inside the basket, there’s a bottle of wine, and a loaf of bread. She meets the wolf, the wolf runs ahead, the wolf eats granny, there’s the big scene about what big eyes you have, and just before the wolf is about to eat Little Red, the woodman shows up with his ax, kills the wolf, slices open the wolf, and granny steps out and she’s fine.
And the very last scene is, granny and the woodman are having a glass of wine, and little red is sitting at a table. And the complaint was granny is a drunk; that we’re promoting senior citizen alcoholism, which I thought was pretty funny, and my response to the person was lighthearted. I said, well, you know if I had just been eaten by a wolf and sliced open, I’d want a drink, and I don’t think that’s unreasonable.
And then the second one that I got was a different version where granny gets eaten by the wolf, and then Little Red gets eaten by the wolf, as well. And at the very last scene, you have she is like a big yellow yolk in the bely of the wolf, and there’s a shadow of the woodman at the door. And here, the complaint was, I didn’t read this to my child, but if I had, she might have been afraid.
And that gave me this big psychological insight to say that the real purpose of fairy tales is to say the world is sometimes dangerous, and fairy tales talk about that. They talk about all the ways that things can go wrong, but they also empower you; they give you tools to figure out, how can you survive some of these issues that happen? So, in Little Red, she had to be observant, and she had to thoughtful, and she wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers. Right?
Or if you take a look at something like, Hansel and Gretel, well, Hansel and Gretel is a pretty grim story. This is where the father brings the children into the forest and abandons them there to die. But they don’t die because they are loyal, and they are brave, and they are clever, and they look out for eachother. And so, I realize that what many parents were saying was, well, I understand that my children are drawn to these stories about the woods. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, and it’s always very exciting. But they didn’t want there to be any wolves in the woods.
And so, often the conversation would have with parents was to say, you think you’re trying to protect your child, but in fact, fairy tales in literature are the way we inoculate ourselves to the illnesses of the world. It’s the way you build an immune system. And which is better? Do you want your child to encounter something dangerous for the first time on the street, or do you want them to read about it in the safety of a library, and be able to talk about it with their parents?
So, that really shifted the way that I looked at the concerns that parents had about libraries. It seemed like they were attacking an institution, but in fact, it was love, and loss, and grief. And they just wanted their babies back.
Nico Perrino: And how did these challenges manifest themselves? Were they typically just letters to you or to a librarian? Or where they more concerted campaigns that involved, perhaps, even showing up at the library and protesting?
Jamie LaRue: Oh, yeah. I had all of the above. And I think, most frequently what would happen is somebody would come into the library and they would complain to someone in the children’s department or at a reference desk. And then, the person would try to serve them and say, “Well, so sorry to hear that. What can he help you find instead?” And then they would say, “Well, no I really want to do something about this.” So, we would give them a request for reconsideration form to say, what’s the book; what are the pages that concerned you; why was this an issue for you; can you recommend other kind of books?
And in some cases, we had people showing up at the library, there’d be three of four of them, and they would say, “The majority of the community is opposed to this philosophy.” And I would say things like, “Well, actually, we just did a survey about this, and 84% of our community is unalterably opposed to censorship.” So, there was both public and private, and individual and group. So, I got lots and lots of practice of talking to people who wanted to remove things from the library.
And ultimately, it’s the talk that I wound up having with most of them. I would say, look, you come to the library because you are looking for something. Let’s say, you’re Focus on the Family, you want materials from Focus on the Family that are about faith-based Christian family life. And that’s okay. We have those books. And if you’re saying you want a place at the table; you as a Christian want a place in the public square, I’m pulling out a chair for you. Have a seat at the table.
But now that you’re here, you can’t tell everyone else that they have to shut up or leave because I also have to serve them. And when you complain about the book about, Daddy’s Wedding, you say, “Why do you have this book?” I have the book because a mother came in to say, “My husband left me for another man. I have a six-year-old son; I’m trying to find a way to talk to him about this. Could you buy this book?”
So, when you explain to people that, in fact, the purpose of the public library is to serve everyone in the community, but not everyone wants the same thing, they begin to understand that there’s a fairness question there.
Nico Perrino: And were challengers, typically, responsive to this? Did they accept your arguments?
Jamie LaRue: At first, they did not, but I think I earned their trust because, ultimately, I wasn’t trying to shout them down, I listened to them, I understood, in fact, I joined Focus on the Family so I could read what they were sending to the various people who were coming in so angry about libraries, and I was that there was this concerted campaign that Focus on the Family was doing against libraries to say that we were destructive to family lives and promoting a liberal agenda.
And when I would say to them, we respond to the needs of the community, and we try to present some of the evidence of our culture, you can trust me because I am adding your books, and I’m defending your books too, but no just your books. And so, I think, eventually, we found our way to a mutual understanding and respect.
Nico Perrino: In 2016, you began as the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and also their Freedom to Read Foundation. What lead you there?
Jamie LaRue: Well, as I said, I think I probably had more challenges to my library than any librarian I have ever spoken to. And I was very concerned that I saw a trend nationally; a new wave of censorship. And since I had spent the past 24 years thinking and writing about it, I said, you know, maybe it’s time for me to be more active on the national stage. American Library Association was founded in 1876; been around for a long time. The oldest, largest library association in the world. And the position of the Intellectual Freedom Director, Office for Intellectual Freedom, is the only one like it in the world. There are library associations, but there is no one else; no other library association that has a dedicated position to fight censorship. And so, that really intrigued me.
Nico Perrino: And what were some of those new trends that you said led you to want to take this job?
Jamie LaRue: So, I was on my very first year, and one of the first things that I was working, I was looking at the pervious year’s challenges, so I started in January, and we’re going through all of the reports that we had received at the Office for Intellectual Freedom to support libraries as they tried to oppose various censorship attempts. And saw this very clear trend that 9 out of the 10 books that had been in the top 10 most frequently challenged, 9 out of the 10 were by or about diverse populations.
And I think that was about the moment where American began to recognize, I think it was in 2014, that for the first time under the age of five, American was a majority nonwhite. And I began to see this push back that we also saw, I think, in the presidential election in 2016, people seeing that they were starting to lose their privilege and their ability to be the majority, and they were very nervous about it. And so, that’s one of the first big trends that I saw.
And then, I think also, there was a counter trend that was the rise of a greater concern for social justice. So, we began to see a new tension between intellectual freedom and social justice. A good example of this one is, do you remember the book that came out called, A Birthday Cake for George Washington?
Nico Perrino: I actually don’t.
Jamie LaRue: Okay. It was don’t by Scholastic Publishing, came out in 2016, it was a children’s book, and an unusual fact about it was that it was written by a woman of color, Iranian Haitian, who was a food writer for the New York Times. It was illustrated by an African American, and it was edited by an African American, all three women. And this has been a problem in children’s literature for a long time, about 10% of the titles feature people of color, and that’s no longer anything like an accurate reflection of the demographics of American.
So, when this book came out, it was about the America’s first celebrity chef, who was a slave in the household of George Washington. His name was Hercules. And this is back when George Washington lived in Philadelphia. Hercules had great freedom of movement, he dressed very fancy, he walked all around Philadelphia, but he was very much a celebrity chef. And the story was that it was George Washington’s birthday, Hercules had to bake him a birthday cake, but there was an embargo, on the part of the British, so that sugar wasn’t being delivered to Philadelphia.
And so, the whole story is that Hercules and his young daughter are in the kitchen trying to figure out how to make a birthday cake, and they finally decide to use honey. So, the book comes out, and then there’s at the very last scene, you have George Washington standing in front of the birthday cake, and he says, “Hercules, you really are the best chef in Philadelphia.”
And then, there’s an author afterword, and it says, “This is a true story, and Hercules was not on the slaves of George Washington, all of whom were manumit upon his death, he belonged to Martha. Marth did not manumit her slaves.” So, that’s the first interesting historical truth. And then the second thing was, Hercules escaped, so the president of our country had owned a slave, who ran away. And years later, they went back, and they said to the daughter, “How do you feel about your father abandoning you?” And the daughter said, “Well, at least he’s free.”
Now, I was so fascinated by that book, I though, so we finally have people of color writing children’s book, and they tell us a fascinating story about all kinds of things I didn’t know about the history of America. When the book first came out, it was well reviewed, it got a couple of early purchases by libraries, and then there was an enormous pushback against the book by many people in the African American community. And they led a social media campaign, #Smiling Slaves. And so, their concern was, well, you show this Hercules as the chef, and he’s with his daughter, and they’re smiling at each other; there’s all these loving looks. So, the point of this was that slavery is not so bad. Right?
Scholastic Magazine first tried to defend it, they said, “Well, this is historically accurate. It was written by people of color, edited by people for color, illustrated by people of color.” But eventually, it got to be such an embarrassment, they announced that they were pulling the book. And on the day I heard that, I went across the street to a Barnes and Noble to try to buy a copy before it disappeared, and they said, “No, they’ve all been pulled from all of the warehouses; from all of the book stores.” And because of something called the Thor decision, nobody saves all these books. They were destroyed.
So, that was the first time that I saw this, again, tension between intellectual freedom. We say we want everyone to have the ability to tell their stories, even difficult stories, but now, if it didn’t hit the right tone, people within that race were pushing back to say, don’t tell that story; don’t speak. And so, I got very keenly interested in this rising tension between intellectual freedom and social justice.
At about the same time, and you probably saw this too, PEN America did a study, I think, that also came out in 2016 where they talked to, I think it was 4,000 or 8,000 college students who said that support for free speech was falling, but support for social justice was rising. And I really believe that this is very much a core issue at the heart of librarian ship right now. What does free speech mean in a time of great social change and an awareness of many historic injustices? What can we talk about, and how can we talk about them?
Nico Perrino: Well, there’s a controversy happening right now at Doane University that’s, probably, a good segue from that discussion. At that university there is a faculty librarian, so this is the librarian who holds a position as, I believe, an associate professor. And she put together a display called, “Parties from the Past.” And it was a display that showed parties at Doane University since the 19th century. And within that display, there was a picture of a masquerade party that, I believe, included some images of people in black face. This is in the 1920s.
And there was a student who complained to her about this photo, and this is when all the black face controversies were happening across the country, with the governor of Virginia, et cetera, and the student said they were emotionally distraught by seeing the image. And the librarian took this to heart, and said she didn’t want to distress anyone, so she took the photo down.
But I guess, subsequent to that, the university investigated, and despite her having taken it down, actually suspended her. Now, she was reinstated a week later, but this is after, not only, the photo was taken down, but, I guess, the whole display was taken down.
And so, this speaks to this tension between freedom of speech and social justice concerns that you were talking about, and also speaks to a larger question of what is the role of a library or a librarian? Is it to set a particular narrative? Is it to make people feel comfortable, both emotionally and intellectually? Is scrubbing the past of things that actually happened in the past truthful events, truthful depictions something that librarians should do to protect their students, or should the present the past unvarnished?
There are some people who said, well, this librarian should have presented more context for the photo, so as to not give people who might be seeing it the wrong impression. And this also raises another question about challenges to library content, we think about book, but librarians do a lot more than just send books to people, or check out books for people, or find books for people. They also put together exhibits, they help them access information on the internet, and you can have challenges to that content, as well.
So, I was wondering if you’ve been familiar with the story, it sounds like you have, and what your take on the controversy is?
Jamie LaRue: Well, there’s a lot of ways to unpack that. That’s a great example. I remember when I first started a talking about many of these censorship issues, I would talk to my colleagues and academic libraries, and they would say, “Oh, censorship really isn’t an issue at universities.” Meaning, that we don’t have lots of challenges to books. But the fact is, right now, I think that many of the most profound challenges to free speech are happening at universities.
The case that you’ve got is a good one. There was another one at the University of Oregon where there was a mural that had been down back in about the same time period, 1920s/1930s, and it was a very sort of, white idea that civilization began, and they would show way back there were Egyptians, and there were Native Americans, but eventually we reached the flower of civilization that is American today. It’s all white people.
And so, that’s the way people talked at that time when this big mural was part of one of the walls in the library. And then, somebody came in and they vandalized that, and they said, well, you know, this is racist, and yes, it’s true that we were not as enlightened in the past as we are today, and it may well be true that we’re not as enlightened today as we will be in the future, but the attempt to suppress or withhold this information is a betrayal of the mission of the library. The job is not to make people feel good about everything that happened in history, it’s to provide them access to knowledge.
And so, I think the way that many librarians have tried to do this is say, okay, if I do an exhibit, and I remember another one that my library did some years ago from the American Library Association, and it was images of propaganda during World War II, and they would show how Japanese people were portrayed in posters and in news articles, and it was deeply, deeply disturbing. But it was a fact. I mean, it was, in fact, what history meant. And so, there’s that kind of context which is that I think that you call for people to suppress information is fundamentally anti-education, anti-library, anti-free speech. More context is better.
But a deeper issue that goes on here is this notion that somehow, my safety, and this language is often used around social justice, I don’t feel safe as a person of color who walks into this institution and sees this mural, and you have no idea how this makes me feel. You should make that go away. But now, my safety seems to require somebody else’s silence. And it’s an emotional safety. And so, always in the past, limits on the First Amendment has come down to libel and imminent harm; imminent damage; someone’s about to hit me with something, or I’m inciting people to riot.
And so, this really tries to move the goalpost to say, my emotional safety, which is something that is pretty subjective; it’s only known to me, somehow trumps anybody else’s right to explore the past. So, that’s one dimension of what’s happening in the universities. The other one, you talk about all the things that happened in libraries, but also happen on campuses is where we bring in speakers who may have controversial views.
And I think, again, we’re seeing the same sort of, someone says, I’m a big believer in social justice. You’ve got Milo Yiannopoluos who comes in, and he says very hurtful things, and so, even in Berkeley, home of the free speech movement for students some years ago, back in the ’60s, now it’s like, no, he will not be permitted to speak, and we will riot to prevent him from speaking. So, I feel that at this point, the universities are very much the testing grounds for whether or not we still believe in the first amendment.
Nico Perrino: Well, libraries, historically, have always been thought of as neutral institutions; depositories for knowledge; places that help you discover and learn knew knowledge. But it seems as though, in our increasingly polarized environment, that these sorts of institutions are being forced to pick a side. At Fire, we are increasingly asked what we think of speech, not whether it’s protected or whether it should be protected, just to gather where we fall on any individual cultural issue. Businesses are doing this. You serve the wrong customer; you could open yourself up to protest.
Universities are doing this. You talked about the de-platforming of cetin speakers. Universities used to be a place that was marketplace of ideas where different speakers on various sides of any given issue would come and present their arguments, and students, and faculty, and librarians could interpret that r understand that knowledge as they saw fit, or those ideas as they saw fit. And libraries, in the many sense, are the same thing.
And I know, recently, you gave a talk about the neutrality about libraries. It was a debate whether libraries should be neutral. Is that your understanding of what a library should be? I mean, I know the answer to it, but why? Why should libraries by neutral? Why shouldn’t they take side on questions that may of us see as settled?
Jamie LaRue: Well, and I’m fascinated. First, I need to go back and add a little nuance to the discussion. For a long time, there was about library movement where most of the libraries were founded mostly by women’s groups from 1880 to about 1930, and at that time, libraries were extremely prescriptive. The American Library Association, when it came along says, “Here’s a list of the best books, and every library should have those.” So, it was very prescriptive, and it tended to be pretty much supportive of the existing social structure.
That changed in 1938, when there was a library director by the name of Forrest Spaulding, and he was the director of the Des Moines Public Library, and two kinds of books came under attack around that time period, and one of them Mein Kompf. And people said, this book is what today we would call hate speech. It’s very unpleasant, and even though we have some anti-Semitism right here in Des Moines, we don’t think this book should be in the library.
And Forrest Spaulding made the argument that, you know, something is happening in Europe right now, and we need to understand what’s going on in the world. We need to know what people are saying, so that we can come up with responses to this kind of argument.
The second one was the book, Grapes of Wrath, and people were saying, this is socialistic. It’s promoting communism. And so, you see the same kinds of issues. Hate speech and political viewpoints that somehow were trying to be smeared, it was said the library shouldn’t have those.
And so, Forrest Spaulding put together something he called, A Library’s Bill of Rights, that said, for the first time, that laid out this groundwork of support for First Amendment; support for free speech as a fundamental value of librarianship, to say that you should have the right, as a citizen, to come in and say, I want to examine the evidence and make up my own mind about them. And at the time that all this happened, Forrest Spaulding said something like, “Today indications in many parts of the world point to growing intolerant suppression of free speech and censorship effecting the rights of minorities and individuals.” That could have been written today. And so, I find that there’s an eerie resonance to that.
So, the notion that libraries step out to say, we’re neutral, doesn’t mean that we don’t have values. It means that we will present the evidence to the culture so that you can make up your own mind. And one of the examples I have for something like this is, to get it out of politics, we provide free meeting rooms. And so, if you open up a meeting room to anybody, you have to open it up to everybody under the same rules.
And I remember getting a call, I spoke about this in my talk, where I got a call from the library director, and he says, “Somebody booked the meeting room, and they wound up showing a video that was anti-vax.” You know, anti-vaccination. And they got 50 people, they were thrilled with the response, they said, gee that was great, we’d like to do it again, and this library director says, “But I know that this is settled science. Vaccinations do not cause autism; that the claims being made about this stuff are absolutely false, and by allowing this to happen, am I not physically endangering my community?”
And so, as we talked it through, I said, you know, your policies mean you do have to allow them to meet, but you still have the opportunity to act. You can say, “Welcome to our meeting rooms. We’ve put a series of articles and books about vaccination along this side if you would like some more information.” So, you could provide the other side of the story. Or, after this, you can say, “Now, we want to do a library sponsored program, and we’re gonna bring in community health experts, and we’re gonna talk about the actual science, and we’re gonna tell you what the real story is.”
So, it isn’t necessary to suppress a viewpoint that you disagree with or you know to be false, in order to present something that is more correct and that builds a better community; builds a stronger community.
Nico Perrino: So, complement, complement with an E, the programming that’s being put on through the rental of the meeting space.
Jamie LaRue: Exactly. So, say, well, there are some views out there, and everybody’s entitled to their opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.
And so, one of the famous comments from one of the supreme court justices is that, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” If you have hate groups that are meeting in your community, do you want to know about it? Do you want to be able to go in and listen to them, and find out who they are, and what they’re saying? Or do you want it all to go underground? Even in Germany, where my daughter happens to live right now, they’ve long had, after World War II, very fierce laws that you cannot speak anti-Semitic stuff. You can’t have the Nazi symbols; it’s just absolutely forbidden by law.
Nico Perrino: You can’t have a copy of Mein Kompf, as well, I believe.
Jamie LaRue: Until it got into the public domain, that was correct. And yet, neo-Nazism endured in Germany, and is, again, seeing a spiking, so it was there, it was just underground. And I think it’s far better for us, in America, to say, I’d rather know that these groups are there, and meeting, and what they’re saying, and who they are, then pretend that the problem doesn’t exist, or believe that by suppressing it, we have somehow dealt with the issues.
Nico Perrino: There’s a controversy going on right now the speaks to this question of institutional or library neutrality, and I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the case, I just heard about it a day or two ago, it’s at the University of Central Arkansas, and they had a sign placed outside their library as part of the pride celebrations happening nationally this month, they placed a sign that had a quote from Lady Gaga that said, “Being gay is like glitter. It never goes away.” And the library posted this on its Facebook page, with a message that said, “We have so much love and respect for the LGBTQ members of our community.”
And the sign was, actually, ordered to be removed by the president of the University, that’s Houston Davis, and he sent out a letter to the community after getting pushback, as you might expect he would, and that letter said, in part, it’s a core value of the University that we support our entire community and its diversity, be he goes on to say, it was not okay for the university sign to be used to make a personal statement or advocate for a personal viewpoint. That is a line that the sign itself crossed.
I was wondering if you’ve heard of this controversy, and what your thoughts are about that, coming from the free speech community, I imagine, we don’t want to censor content, even if you think the library shouldn’t have done this in the first place?
Jamie LaRue: Yeah, fascinating. Well, first of all, LGBTQ stuff is very, very hot right now. Everything from in the public library world, it’s the drag queen story times –
Nico Perrino: I wanted to ask you about that too, yeah.
Jamie LaRue: And I’ll come back to that one. And then, in the case of Universities, when I was up at the Office for Intellectual Freedom, we had a Marian University, private institution in Indiana, where, again, it was pride month, and they had a display of LGBTQ materials, and a new parent was walking through with a provost, and said, “This is absolutely anti-Catholic, why is it here?”
And the provost then directed the library staff to remove this display, and the library staff did something very clever about this. Well, okay, it was just an exhibit, and we’ll move it out of the main area, up to the fifth floor, but they put a sign out that said, guess what, due to criticisms, we have moved our LGBT display to the fifth floor. Well, it turns out then, that the whole university community got up in arms about this, and they said, you know, we have professors here who write about LGBTQ materials. This is a university, and even though it’s a private university, we too believe in this idea about intellectual freedom.
So, that’s the first thing, is that these challenges are still going on, and that it’s more a moral belief that, I don’t approve LGBT stuff, so I don’t think that the university should say anything about it.
Now, back to the Arkansas case, if somebody were saying, we serve everyone with respect, and that included the historically marginalized groups, LGBT and African Americans, and we firmly commit to serving everyone, that’s a statement of institutional purpose.
If you’re in a place where it is very red, and, probably, central Arkansas is going to be one of those places, now it does look like you’re calling out one group. If you flip it around and say, we love our evangelical Christian community, well, that too, look like, now I’m taking a side, so I have that same kind of sense that maybe the university president said is there is a difference between saying, we have a fundamental, institutional mission of service, and we will serve everyone. You’re on firm ground with that.
But when you call out individual groups, and are clearly weighing in on one side of a cultural debate, I think you begin to erode that neutrality, or erode the belief, are you communicating, so does that mean that evangelical Christians are no longer welcome at your university? And so, it does get to be complicated.
Nico Perrino: Is there any piece of content that you can even conceive of that a library should not hold? I imagine you would say, a library, if the librarians decide to have a copy of Mein Kompf that can be taken out, they should have it. Is there any piece of content that you think shouldn’t be there? Or have you had an experience in your career in which a library had a piece of content that was challenged, and you were like, I’m not so sure about that one?
Jamie LaRue: I can remember years ago that when Madonna’s book, Sex, came out, and it was $75.00, it was aluminum, it didn’t fit on the shelf, it was spiral binding, and it was basically pictorial erotica. It wasn’t obscene, but it was erotica. And I remember as a library director at the time, I looked at this, and I said, you know, should I buy this? And at that time, we had a pretty small library. Our collection development, we had some print erotica, but we didn’t have photographic erotica. And I went, you know, I don’t think this one actually fits into our collection development policy.
And so, that’s the key issue for me here, is that if you build a description of the scope of your content, what it is that you’re trying to cover, what kind of money you want to spend on things, what things you collect, what sorts of things you’re probably not going to be buying, I think that’s okay, and that’s not censorship. Selection is not censorship. If I decide, for instance, after doing a lot of research that I want to buy a Toyota, that doesn’t mean that I’m boycotting Chevrolet. Right?
So, it’s not exactly the same thing. And over time, tastes change, communities change, and libraries change. So, probably if I was still running the library in that community, which now serves 330,000 people, I, probably, would buy the book now because this is post 50 Shades of Gray. You know? The community changes, and libraries change to reflect both the cultural shifts and shifts within their own community. Beyond that, right now, I just don’t think books are dangerous. The world can be dangerous, but reading is not. Reading about it is not. Reading about it makes us better.
So, often when I was at the Office for Intellectual Freedom, this is exactly the question I would get asked by every radio talk show host, “Now, admit it, there is some books that should be censored, right?” And I say, “Well, I have yet to hear about a complaint about a book that a library bought that I really thought it needed to be removed.”
Nico Perrino: Getting back to the university context, this is kind of a question that many of us who work in the free speech/academic freedom world try and grapple with is, are librarians staff or are they faculty? Because the First Amendment framework in the United States, or the free speech framework says that staff at universities, administrators, for example, don’t have as much protections for academic freedom as faculty would. Now, at the Doane University case, it was made pretty clear that this librarian was faculty because they held an associate professorship role, as well. But not every librarian does. Do librarians, in your mind, have academic freedom rights to the extent that they curate content?
Jamie LaRue: I think that they should have even greater academic freedom because that’s the mission of a librarian. Your job is to gather, organize, and present to your community the intellectual content of the culture. That’s the job description. That’s what it means. And I think that, although, often, within the university field, it’s really more about status than it is about principle. People are fighting to say, well, so and so has more privileges than somebody else, but I think in the case of an educational institution whose job is to gather, and curate content, and present it, how can they not have the freedom to do that?
Nico Perrino: Are librarians particularly good intellectual freedom, free speech, free inquiry topics? I’ve noticed in my career that they can even be more dependable than journalists, for example, when it comes to commitment to intellectual freedom.
Jamie LaRue: Well, I think the truth of it is that it varies by location. And so, certainly, intellectual freedom is a foundational principle of our profession, since 1938 Des Moines adopted it; 1939, the American Library Association adopted it. It became a fundamental value, and every class of librarians that’s been produced since then has had to listen to some of the core arguments in favor of intellectual freedom.
That said, let’s recognize that in the public library world, there are some 16,000 institutions; 16,000 branches of public libraries, more than there are McDonalds. Most of them are rural. Most of them are in areas that are, probably, politically pretty red, and I’ll just bet you that in those places, sometimes censorship does take place because people say, I would lose my job if I were to buy some of these books, or stand up for this particular program, so it’s not settled. I think that librarians are pretty reliable about it, but it’s a real world, not an academic one.
Nico Perrino: Well, I realize, now, we’re hitting the 45-minute mark. I wanted to just close by giving our listeners a sense of what you’re doing now. I’ve heard and seen that you’ve been speaking on these topics, but I know you retired recently. What’s going on with Jamie LaRue moving forward?
Jamie LaRue: Well, I am an independent consultant, which means that I do a lot of writing, and a lot of speaking, and a lot of working with organizations. And it’s interesting. I’m interested in all kinds of things: HR, human relations issues within libraries; organization development. But right now, I’m getting a lot of requests to come and help us sort through the difference between intellectual freedom and social justice. So, I think this issue has some legs, and I am available for workshops and lectures.
Nico Perrino: Well, I appreciate you consulting with us today, and I hope to have you on in the future, as well. Jamie LaRue, thanks for coming on the show.
Jamie LaRue: Thank you.
Nico Perrino: That was Jamie LaRue, the award-winning director of the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado, and former director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and the Freedom to Read Foundation.
If you want to read a transcript of this podcast, we should have one available in the show notes in the coming days, so stay tuned. This podcast is hosted, produced, and recorded by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by my colleague, Aaron Reese. To learn more about So To Speak, you can follow us on Twitter, at Twitter.com/freespeechtalk, or like us on Facebook, at Facebook.com/sotospeakpodcast. You could also email us feedback at Sotospeak@thefire.org, or call in a question for a future show at, 215-315-0100.
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