Back in 2001, right after the 9/11 attacks, the federal government enacted a piece of legislation called the USA PATRIOT ACT (which stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism). This legislation essentially gave federal agents and law officers powers they had never had before, to use in the fight against terrorism.
Unfortunately, one of the features of the USA PATRIOT ACT was that libraries and library files could be subject to searches — an officer could demand to know who had checked out the Quran or The Anarchist’s Cookbook, and the library would have to release that information. Worse, the library could not even let patrons know that their private check-out records had been violated.
Librarians are often thought of a quiet bunch, collecting cats and hats and rare copies of The Cat in the Hat. But when it comes to intellectual freedom? Woo-whee, we get all roused up. In 2003, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft accused librarians of stirring up “baseless hysteria” in reaction to the controversial Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allowed for the confiscation of library records. But, it’s happened — our fears were not baseless.
Librarians will go to great lengths to protect intellectual freedom. It recently came to light that a librarian in Kansas City, Missouri, was arrested during a public event because he was trying to defend a patron’s right to free speech.
The Kansas City Public Library, no stranger to controversial speakers, had in May 2016 invited Dennis Ross, former advisor on the Middle East to Presidents George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama, to speak on the topics of Israel and President Truman. Three off-duty police officers and the head of security for the Jewish Community Foundation were asked to serve as security for the event. Security’s job was not to prevent guests from asking controversial questions, but rather eject patrons only after consulting with library officials.
Well, things went wrong. Jeremy Rothe-Kushel, a local activist, asked a question about what he considered to be the US’s support of Israel’s “state-sponsored terrorism.” This question was answered calmly. But Rothe-Kushel’s next question was more aggressive, and at this point, security, under the impression that the library was a private building, came up to him to immediately kick him out. Steve Woolfolk, the library’s director of programming, stepped in to defend Rothe-Kushel’s right to remain in a public building and participate in a public forum. Rather than stay, however, Rothe-Kushel said that he would leave if asked to. Woolfolk walked out with him, the two of them led out by security. Then, suddenly, several guards grabbed Woolfolk, kicking him in the knee, slamming him against a pillar and finally flinging down into a chair, where he was eventually handcuffed. Both men were arrested; Woolfolk was charged with interfering with an arrest. Both cases have yet to be resolved.
Intellectual freedom is important. It is what allows us to learn and grown as humans, to nurture and develop thoughts and ideas that may, at some point, evolve into something else entirely. Intellectual freedom is what lets us read about evolution AND creationism, Catholicism AND Paganism, Capitalism AND Marxism. It’s what lets the confused 18-year-old read about homosexuality, the hurting 40-year-old learn about adult children of alcoholics, the grieving 76-year-old suggest hospice for a dying loved one.
You may not always agree with what you read in the library. But know that librarians will fight for your right to read.