With a cheery in-person throwback, the annual ALA hosts a discussion on censorship. A Twitter controversy ensued.
The ALA community was thrilled to be face to face again and talk about issues important to the industry. Comments made during a Unite Against Book Bans panel sparked a Twitter storm that laid bare the emotion and complexity of the censorship discussion.
The 2022 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference has generated much love, joy and celebration for books and at least one Twitter-fueled controversy threatening to overshadow some of the positive feelings from the first ALA conference in person since January 2020.
In a June 25 panel on book bans by Unite Against Book Bans (a national campaign launched by the ALA to fight censorship), author and former librarian Nancy Pearl referenced a time when she worked at the Tulsa Public Library and held a book on Holocaust denial. the shelves despite being disgusted by it. The topic resurfaced in comments from panelist, author and National Ambassador for Children’s Literature Jason Reynolds and Pearl during the panel as they discussed the “hard truth” about censorship: can you be anti-banning of books while wanting to remove access to certain materials? (See the full transcript of comments below.)
A librarian present at the event tweeted about Pearl and Reynolds referencing Holocaust denial comments, which sparked a Twitter firestorm joined by many who weren’t on the panel. The Twitter uproar has surfaced from discussions not only on the dangers of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial but also of the risk of bringing accusations quickly and the pressures that people of color, in particular, face in live public forums.
Christopher Stewart, a librarian at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, DC, whose student Jorge Flores was on the panel, was shocked by the original tweet, saying no part of the event struck him as controversial or tense, but more like a thoughtful discussion among friends as people try to figure out the way through what can be a complicated and tense subject.
“It was like we were sitting in the living room and just talking,” says Stewart. “It was a conversation between Jorge, Nancy and Jason.”
Listening to the discussion, Stewart did not focus on the example of Holocaust denial used by Pearl, as much as on what he believed she was trying to say: “How can we censor if we say that we shouldn’t ban? How can we say, ‘Oh, no, let’s not accept this, however despicable it is,’” he says. “So we can have this rich conversation and still say it’s wrong, very wrong.”
In his Socratic seminars with his high school students, Stewart says, they often tackle difficult and controversial topics. They discuss how and why people might think about the things they do, as well as how to have what Stewart considers important conversations with people the students may vehemently disagree with.
“I want them to be very comfortable being uncomfortable and to be comfortable disagreeing,” he says.
The emotional debate diverted attention from the panel’s original intent: a discussion of censorship focused on those fighting for freedom to read and the importance of continuing to fight despite the challenges.
In an interview with SLJNora Pelizzari, director of communications for the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) said that when discussing censorship, people can get caught up in the specific example as opposed to the big picture of intellectual freedom. .
“Using extreme examples of the darkest points in human history, or the darkest ideas we can imagine as a people, takes us away from the point, which is that people must be allowed to explore intellectually from way they choose,” says Pelizzari. “I’m not going to sit here and say I think libraries should stock Holocaust denial books. It’s not something I’m prepared to say.
“But it can certainly be argued that there are reasons why access to ideas that we find despicable is important. We need to be able to access people’s ideas that we want to disagree with. It’s pretty established that Mein Kampf is an important primary source that must be accessed in order to study the origins of the Holocaust. Thus, despicable ideas are not a sufficient reason to ban the books of our [NCAC’s] perspective.”
For NCAC, an individual’s moral “line” or personal opinion should never be a factor in the removal of a book, adds Pelizzari. This includes not only politicians or community members, but also librarians.
“A dangerous idea is not a sufficient reason to prevent access,” says Pelizzari. “If someone wants to access information, they should be able to do so. When we start empowering anyone, including government officials and public employees, to make decisions about what ideas we are and are not allowed to access, we enter very dangerous territory.
“There are people who would say that anything written by someone who supports Donald Trump is misinformation and therefore should not be put away in the library. Similarly, there are people who would argue that anything that talks about the experience of being a trans kid is misinformation and shouldn’t be allowed in the library. But the opinions of these people are irrelevant for decision-making. If the librarian decides that a book is valuable to the community, or if there are people in that community who want access to particular information, the role of the library is in some way to help with that access.