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February 23, 2005

Musing on the Freedom of Speech

My first job out of library school was at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. While there a co-worker of mine asked me a very thought provoking question, the answer of which has stayed with me quite a while. She asked me, of all the things I learned in library school what is the most important? To me, the answer was easy: how to diplomatically tell people to be quiet while in hallowed halls of a library. Just kidding! Actually, my answer had to do with technology. I learned a lot about technology (HTML, programming languages, etc.) in library school and I still use these skills in my job today. She told me that this was wrong. This took me aback a little, but her answer made complete sense.

The most important lessons from library school are the concepts of academic and intellectual freedom and the importance of the freedom of speech. Libraries, more than any other American institution, are the front line in protecting these freedoms and librarians should take this very seriously. Libraries and the free flow of information are essential for any democracy to function properly. As a result, libraries and librarians are vehemently against censorship in any form and literally fight for a person's right to express him or herself freely. This discussion with my co-worker was a powerful reminder and it has stuck with me throughout the years.

Last Friday this lesson was put to the test, in a way, and I was a little upset with the outcome. I was contacted by a reporter from the Minnesota Daily, the U of M student newspaper, who asked me some very difficult questions about my pet project of UThink. Specifically he asked me:

Are the blogs totally uncensored? Can students get in trouble for the speech they use on the blog? As you know speech on the internet such as hate speech, libel, slander, harassment and defamation are hot-button issues on the internet and I wonder if they are regulated on the Uís blogging system. What regulations do students need to remember when blogging? Are there any? Do a lot students come to the UThink program as somewhere to express themselves completely uncensored?

Some of these questions were easy to answer. Concerning blog censorship I wrote:
"The blogs are totally uncensored. The University Libraries is a traditional defender of intellectual and academic freedom on campus and we take this responsibility very seriously."

Easy. Nice and strong and unambiguous. However, the question "Can students get in trouble for the speech they use on the blog?" became somewhat problematic. It is difficult to convey to a student journalist the complexities of the freedom of speech while still making my answer as "library-strong" as I can make it. At first I wrote:
"Not from the University Libraries. The University Libraries believe passionately in the freedom of speech and we will fight for a student's right to exercise that freedom."

Not so fast, said my boss, who wanted to see my responses before they went out. My intent was to leave my answers both concise and strong. And by concise I mean that I wasn't saying too much so that the student could misconstrue my comments. However, my boss brought up some good points that I would have just preferred to leave to the student's imagination. For one, will the libraries really fight for a person's right to express him or herself freely? Neither my boss or I could make this promise as this is the call of the library director. Secondly, how much freedom of speech does a student really have, or for that matter, does anyone have? For example, would we allow a student to publish a list of credit card numbers on a blog? No, of course not. Given these realities my boss wanted me to rework my answer above to be a little more realistic. It became:
Not from the University Libraries. The Unversity Libraries believe passionately in the freedom of speech and we encourage students to exercise that freedom.

However, there must be a balance between freedom and personal responsibility as outlined in the U of M Student Code of Conduct:

*"Subd. 1. Policy Statement.* It is the policy of the University of Minnesota (University) that certain minimum standards of conduct are necessary to safeguard the rights, opportunities, and welfare of students, faculty, staff, and guests of the University community and to assure protection of the interests of the University as it seeks to carry out its mission.

The University requires a community free from violence, threats, and intimidation; protective of free inquiry; respectful of the rights of others; open to change; supportive of democratic and lawful procedures; and dedicated to a rational and orderly approach to the resolution of conflict."

The University Libraries must adhere to University policy when applicable.

This is the reality of free speech on campus: the wonderful freedom we have must be balanced by the nebulous concept of personal responsibilty. And on top of that, University policy further muddies the water of just what a student can and cannot say.

I cannot express to you enough how painful I found it to qualify my strong statements concerning library views on the freedom of speech with these new statements. It really, really irked me. Not because I didn't understand that this is just the reality of the freedom of speech, but because I was sure the student would glom onto these statements and paint a less-than-true picture of the library in terms of these freedoms. And I do feel that libraries should be prepared to have a stronger stance on issues of censorship and intellectual freedom than your average American citizen. Man I was on fire. I was pacing, I was hootin' and hollerin'. My boss and I found it ironic that my own freedom of speech was being censored during the course of this discussion.

Well, the article came out yesterday and it showed I really didn't have much to be worried about. However, it still upset me that the very section that my boss and I had such difficulty with was the section that the student author seemed to focus on. While the freedom of speech is definitely a difficult concept, I am of the opinion that as a library we need ... no we must be stronger in our stance and be much more proactive towards protecting this freedom. I am excited about the opportunities UThink may provide us as a library to define and strengthen this stance.

Posted by snackeru at February 23, 2005 1:12 PM | UThink


It's too bad the article in the Daily isn't nearly as interesting or focused as this entry is. It just goes to show, when regular journalists drop the ball, there will undoubtedly be someone in the blogosphere there to pick up the slack.

Posted by: Tim at February 23, 2005 3:12 PM

Freedom of Speach is a wonderful concept that is frequently abused, both in real life and on the internet. Yes, Libraries are a guardian of free speach in that they don't ban books because a small segment of the population doesn't like them, but they do have their rules as well as to what they will carry.

Freedom of the speach on the internet is a more difficult thing. I run a message board for our local hockey team for example and you can't allow personal information about the players to be posted. And while I will allow informed critism of the players, out and out bashing is not allowed. Nor may other fans come in and start slamming our team or calling our players or fans names. There's also the issue of slander -- I ran into that when someone who didn't like me started posting that I'd been arrested for Drunk Driving. This was totally untrue and I did remind them that arrests are a matter of public record and that they should feel free to go look it up, but some people just want to bad mouth other people that they seem to have a personal problem with. The team does monitor the board and if they've got a problem with anything that is being said there, they contact me immediately.

People need to be reminded that Freedom of Speach can be abused and is subject to rules just like any of our other freedoms are concerned. In America we have the rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but if happiness is going out and killing people that's not going to fly.

If you've got something to say, please make your statement, but DON'T bother us with lies, rumors, and things that are meant to hurt other people.

The idea behind freedom of speach was to allow each side to have his viewpoint stated. Not to allow for character assassination, harrassment, theft, and other such items that in can be considered as a crime against humanity.

Usually when I censor someone on my message board, the first thing that this thrown in my face is "You're taking away my Freedom of Speach!" My response is -- You have the right to Freedom of Speach. Just not on this message board. If you wish to go and excersise it elsewhere, please do.

Posted by: Dianna at February 23, 2005 6:33 PM

This is great stuff! When philosophy meets practice very interesting musings, such as this, surface. For this very reason I am quite partial to adjunct faculty...they know what it's like in "the real world".

Hope you have a chance to pitch this idea to your current class.


Posted by: Jx2 at February 27, 2005 4:57 PM


Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you liked the post. I have indeed brought this issue up in class and they were very receptive to the discussion. In fact, they seem to enjoy it when I bring up my "You wouldn't believe what happened to me at work today" type stories.

Thanks again for the kind words!


Posted by: Shane at February 28, 2005 2:02 PM

Shane, I've fallen behind on Greet Machine, so I didn't see this post until today -- but this is great stuff. I agree 100% that the whole intellectual freedom thing is the best thing I learned in library school. It's one of our absolute core professional values, and that's exactly as it should be.

I understand your mental anguish at having to qualify your statement about UThink and the Libraries, but I look at it this way. One of the reasons UThink is such a great educational tool is that while it allows you to post whatever you want, no matter how offensive or controversial, because it isn't anonymous, you must be prepared to accept the consequences of your speech. This is (as I've always understood it) a critical component of the American right to free speech and expression: my right to do and say what I want stops where harm to another begins. That line is constantly under negotiation, and depends on community standards, etc. Your statement on censorship and intellectual freedom shows how UThink is a perfect laboratory for learning this.

Posted by: stacie at February 28, 2005 2:40 PM


Thanks for this comment. It is nice to get another librarian's perspective. I think you hit the nail on the head, too, concerning your comments regarding the anonymity of UThink. The lack of anonymity, I think, should have enabled me to make more forceful comments about the libraries' own stance. While there have been what some would consider to be offensive entries on the system, because of that anonymity it is becoming clear that many people are practicing self-censorship. I can't decide if that is good or bad. On the one hand it maintains a certain level of civility on the system, but it also scares some people away since they may think they can't really be themselves. It is an interesting conundrum, I think, and it makes UThink a little different than Blogger or LiveJournal. Maybe more academic even.

Anyway, thanks for the comment. Every so often I write something worthwhile. Don't give up on me yet!

Posted by: Shane at March 1, 2005 1:24 PM

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