Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Chilling Effect and Banned Books Week

When you can find ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ readily available at your local grocery or drugstore, do we even need to worry about the Freedom to Read anymore?


In the United States, every September, a week is set aside to celebrate the freedom to read. This year Banned Books Week will run from September 22-28th. Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association; American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression; the American Library Association; American Society of Journalists and Authors; Association of American Publishers; Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; the Freedom to Read Foundation; National Coalition Against Censorship; National Council of Teachers of English; National Association of College Stores; PEN American Center and and Project Censored.  It is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

In Canada, we celebrate Freedom to Read Week and this year it runs from February 24th to March 2, 2013. The event is sponsored by The Freedom of Expression Committee of Canada’s Book and Periodical Council, "the Umbrella Organization for Writing and Publishing in Canada." At the moment, there are two librarians on this committee from the Canadian Library Association:: Jane Pyper, Toronto City Librarian and Alvin Schrader, a Professor at the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta.

The Freedom of Expression Committee has a Position Statement on the Freedom of Expression and the Freedom to Read. The Canadian Library Association has a Position Statement on Intellectual Freedom. Both are prefaced with a reference to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states, as Fundamental Freedoms

Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

    1. freedom of conscience and religion;
    2. freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
    3. freedom of peaceful assembly; and
    4. freedom of association.

What’s interesting are the differences in the choice of language between these two position statements.  

The first paragraph of The Canadian Library Association’s Policy statement on Intellectual Freedom is framed around every Canadian’s fundamental right to intellectual freedom. What follows is a brief outline of the responsibilities of librarians in support of these rights:

Libraries have a basic responsibility for the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom.

It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. To this end, libraries shall acquire and make available the widest variety of materials.

The first paragraph of The Book and Periodical Council’s position statement, on the other hand, is framed against the suppression of writing and the silencing of writers. But what I find very interesting is the their deference to the courts alone in the second paragraph on who decides our right to read.

The freedom to choose what we read does not, however, include the freedom to choose for others. We accept that courts alone have the authority to restrict reading material, a prerogative that cannot be delegated or appropriated. Prior restraint demeans individual responsibility; it is anathema to freedom and democracy.

I find this language quite interesting because at the moment, there is very important story that is still unfolding of a publisher who is using the Ontario Court System to suppress a librarian's freedom of expression. Edwin Mellen Press has filed two suits for libel and damages of over $4 million against Dale Askey, a librarian, for expressing his professional opinion about the quality of Edwin Mellen publications.

Dale Askey was a librarian at another university in the United States when he posted a blog post with his opinions on the press, which complicates the story. But what remains abundantly clear is the publisher in question is trying to suppress speech that it does not want others to hear. First it tried to employ pressure upon Dale Askey’s employer, McMaster University,  to force him to remove the post in question. When that failed, the publisher launched a libel and damages lawsuit again both parties. They are employing what is known as the chilling effect:  

In a legal context, a chilling effect is the inhibition or discouragement of the legitimate exercise of a constitutional right by the threat of legal sanction. The right that is most often described as being suppressed by a chilling effect is the right to free speech [Wikipedia]

I support Dale Askey and have signed the petition demanding the Edwin Mellen Press drop their lawsuit.  I am also working within other my institution and other institutions to find ways to lend  support to our colleague.

I have also dedicated myself to writing short profiles dedicated to librarians and library staff who stood up against forces that would curb freedom of expression and the freedom to read. These posts, like the one you are reading, are will be in the Creative Commons, if you would like to reuse them if you library is celebrating Banned Books Week at the end of the month. I’m hoping to get them finished by then. 

I think it's important that we tell our side of the story.

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