The Future of Digital Speech

This commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education is about speech controls in the hands of business (specifically, companies like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and the bulk of social media), but I cannot help but think of how it relates to other challenges to collection materials that libraries in general receive over time. The United States government is (generally) not the source of censorship; it is the private interests (either individual, group, business, etc.) that represent the bulk of challenges to free speech and expression. From the article:

Americans, who have long mistrusted government, are acutely aware of and sensitive to public censorship—more so, perhaps, than any other nation. There is a strong First Amendment tradition in the courts. But Americans tend to be much less concerned with the danger of private censorship. That’s too bad, because the greatest dangers to free speech in the future will come not from government interference but from speech monopolists. That has been true for much of the 20th century, and while it seems hard to imagine now, it could become the fate of the Internet.

Back during Banned Books week this year, Stephen Abrams made a comment in his posting of my Banned Book video. He said:

Now if libraryland could only just be more outspoken about banned websites and e-resources. If most books, magazines, video and other materials go digital, then who’s going to speak out for freedom? What about the blocking of certain whole categories like streaming video, social networks, etc.? Will the systemic banning of certain e-items be water under the bridge and standard practice by the time we all notice and want to do something about it?

With a digital future looming on the horizon, the importance of speaking out and securing free speech online is rapidly becoming paramount. There cannot be a free speech equivalent of the digital divide where the physical items are defended for their content and the digital versions are not. (This is another way in which I differ with Dean Marney. At his libraries, why can I pick up a book on sex education and yet be potentially denied access to a website with the same information? My post on his article here.) There cannot be a gap in material availability by medium lest we spend our days arguing about how something is worthy of defending in print over digital or vice versa. There has to be a universal defense made for the materials.

Stephen is right: why isn’t libraryland more outspoken for those sites that find themselves on the wrong side of the filter or the business prerogative?

4 thoughts on “The Future of Digital Speech

  1. “…why isn’t libraryland more outspoken for those sites that find themselves on the wrong side of the filter or the business prerogative?”

    There’s no excuse why libraries should remain silent on net neutrality, which encompasses the business aspect, but as for filtering: the argument I’ve always heard (and used) is that while the content of the books are sealed away within the covers so that those who do not wish to see this content don’t have to, if a patron pulls up a website with offensive content on a public access computer in the middle of the library, a passerby may catch a glimpse of it.

    This doesn’t mean that we censor the web at our computers. It means we outfit computers with privacy screens, have separate areas for computers that allow access to minors (no different than having collections for different age groups), and thoroughly warn parents that yes–their children can access the whole Internet from our computers, and it’s up to them to make sure they don’t.

  2. We should be outspoken. I think there are librarians that do speak out. The problem is, CIPA. Specifically, this verbiage,

    “HARMFUL TO MINORS.–The term “harmful to minors” means any picture, image, graphic image file, or other visual depiction that–(C) taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value as to minors.”

    This verbiage is at odds with First Amendment Rights because how is it possible to agree on what, when “taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value as to minors.” If the same logic were applied to printed words, would Twilight become available only to adults because, community members could make a case that it is devoid of any value to minors? Thankfully, this sort of ridiculous rationale is not applied to books because, based on history, it would not pass muster in the Supreme Court.

    This ridiculous ruling cannot even apply to video games. In American Amusement Machine Association, et al., v. Teri Kendrick, et al., 244 F.3d 954 (7th Cir. 2001); cert.denied, 534 U.S. 994; 122 S. Ct. 462; 151 L. Ed. 2d 379 (2001) the courts ruled that “children have first amendment rights” which reversed a prior decision to censure children from playing violent and sexual video games. Also, in Interactive Digital Software Association, et al. v. St. Louis County, Missouri, et al., 329 F.3d 954(8th Cir. 2003) the court stated in reference to prohibiting children from accessing violent video games that “speech that is neither obscene as to youths nor subject to some other legitimate proscription cannot be suppressed solely to protect the young from ideas or images that a legislative body thinks unsuitable for them. In most circumstances, the values protected by the First Amendment are no less applicable when the government seeks to control the flow of information to minors.”

    We could learn something from the video game world. CIPA is at odds with these fairly recent decisions. It is unconstitutional and, yes, Andy and Stephen are right: we need to fight now to have digital materials protected before it’s too late.

    [And here's a scary thought: if it does become too late, will the CIPA provisions begin to extend to books at some point causing historic Supreme Court rulings to be reversed? Will the cited court decisions on video games become reversed? It seems to me we cannot have such flagrant inconsistencies and applications of the law forever; either the First Amendment will be applied equitably or we will continue to stand-by as the protections of the First Amendment are revoked- and not just for minors, but for everyone.]

    • CIPA was judged on the merits of filtering. If the filters can come off, then it is not an issue. Since children cannot make that request, I know of libraries that have procedures for the removal of filters. It’s a parenting decision at that point since they are not adults. That’s probably where CIPA gets a bit weird and it’ll probably take some sort of case to figure that out.

  3. “There cannot be a free speech equivalent of the digital divide where the physical items are defended for their content and the digital versions are not. (This is another way in which I differ with Dean Marney. At his libraries, why can I pick up a book on sex education and yet be potentially denied access to a website with the same information? My post on his article here.) There cannot be a gap in material availability by medium lest we spend our days arguing about how something is worthy of defending in print over digital or vice versa. There has to be a universal defense made for the materials.”

    Does your library collect all the books about sex education? Or just a specific few that met the criteria of your selection policy? Does Dean Marney’s library block every sex education site or just the ones that the filtering company they use blocks?

    I find this one of the biggest weaknesses of the filtering debate. On the one hand, if a library chooses to filter a site (e.g., playboy.com) it is committing an act of censorship. Yet, when a library does not buy an item on a particular topic (e.g., Playboy) it is omitting the item from the collection. In both cases *access* to the item is *not* available. Yet, the one is censorship and the other is a selection or collection development decision.

    Honestly, how many books, magazines, videos, etc., does your library have that contain *visual* depictions that would cause them to be “blocked” from patron use similar to the same requirements for websites under CIPA? My bet is practically none. Why? Because those items are outside the scope of the library’s mission and thus outside the scope of it’s selection / collection development decisions. Yet, if a library chooses to filter (or has to filter because it accepts E-rate funds) those websites that meet CIPAs requirements (and let’s face it, there are tons upon tons upon tons of those types of sites), the library is censoring.

    So, it seems to me that to many libraries / librarians are more than willing to apply different criteria to physical vs. digital items.

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