Don’t dictate what others may read

Deborah Caldwell-Stone

The American Library Association fully supports the right of every parent to control what their child reads and to select alternative reading or instructional materials for their child.

We do not believe, however, that a parent’s right to control their child’s reading includes a right to restrict what other children read or to limit what books are available to young people in the library.

Our belief is rooted firmly in the First Amendment. Young people have First Amendment rights — not only the right to speak but the right to access and use the resources of the school or public library, free from any censorship that arises from disapproval of a book’s content or views. Our courts of law — including the Supreme Court — have said that a decision by a school or library board to remove a book from its library because the board disapproves of the words, ideas or opinions contained in the book is a violation of a minor’s First Amendment rights.

This principle applies even when it is a parent or group of parents demanding that elected or appointed officials censor books they find shocking or inappropriate because the books conflict with their moral, political or religious beliefs. While the First Amendment promises freedom of belief, and the right to express that belief, it does not guarantee a right to dictate to school boards or library boards what ideas or beliefs may be found in our publicly funded libraries.

Publicly funded libraries are community institutions that must serve the interests and information needs of every child, every family and every individual in the community. By necessity, their collections must reflect the diversity of thought and values that exist in every community.

These are not easy issues to navigate, much less resolve, especially when books are viewed as a threat by parents and partisan activists because they challenge the assumptions they hold about their world.

Designating a broad range of books dealing with the lives of those who are gay, queer or transgender, or that tell the stories of persons who are black, indigenous or persons of color as inappropriate or worse not only inflicts trauma on vulnerable young persons and their families who are members of those groups, it also threatens our democratic values.

Librarians and library workers will be the first to acknowledge that not every book is right for every reader. But librarians and library workers will also be the first to tell you that censorship only succeeds in fostering the conditions that destroy our precious liberties — our freedom to read and think for ourselves, which belong to young people as well as adults.

Certainly, parents should be able to direct their child’s reading, and librarians and library workers are more than willing to assist parents in identifying books for their children that reflect their values. But librarians and library workers are also committed to defending their communities’ right to read and to learn. Rather than teaching lessons in censorship, librarians and library workers strive to affirm the importance of the freedom to read and to demonstrate to young people that in this country they have the right and responsibility to think critically about what they read rather than allowing others to do their thinking for them.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone is director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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