Banned Books Week Celebrates the Freedom to Read
Libraries are at the center of the struggle to preserve everyone's freedom to access a diversity of ideas, information and opinions. Banned Books Week, from September 20 to 27, calls attention to the wealth of creative expression that is stifled when books can be forbidden from library shelves.
The Internet is one of the first places that most people turn when looking for instant access to information. For people who don't have computers or Internet connections at home, public libraries are the only place to connect with information online. But what do you do when a library computer blocks the Web page you want? This issue came before the U.S. Supreme Court in its most recent term, and its decision was a setback to everyone who depends on public libraries for access to the Internet.
The court failed to declare the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) unconstitutional. The law denies certain types of federal aid to libraries that do not install "filtering" software on computers that provide access to the Internet. The American Library Association, along with the ACLU and other advocates of free speech, challenged the law before the Supreme Court, arguing that a computer program is simply unable to make decisions about what material is acceptable and what is obscene. Although the majority of Justices upheld the law, the decision did limit the law's effect by permitting adults to choose to have the filtering software turned off before accessing the Internet.
When a Web site is blocked on a library computer or a book is taken off the library shelves, it is easy to see how your freedom to access information is being compromised. But other threats to our freedoms in the library can occur in secret. When you check out a book and visit a Web site, do you know if somebody else is watching?
In the past two years, a growing number of librarians and library patrons are learning just how much unchecked power government agents have obtained thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act. Of particular concern to librarians and library patrons is Section 215, which gives the FBI a license to snoop in a person's library records, along with other kinds of personal information. Groups like the ACLU and the American Library Association have worked to publicize the government's sweeping new powers to spy on Americans and hold the Justice Department accountable by insisting that it be more open about how the USA PATRIOT Act is being used. After months of stonewalling and secrecy from Attorney General John Ashcroft, the message is starting to get through.
On September 17, after ridiculing the ALA and ACLU's concerns as "baseless hysteria," Ashcroft relented to their demands and declassified information about how Section 215 is being used. Is this a long-awaited first step toward accountability on behalf of the Justice Department, or is it a limited, politically-motivated gesture? Whatever the answer turns out to be, it's clear that the voices raised in defense of our right to privacy are being heard.
Advances against censorship and in the defense of privacy can only be accomplished when individuals are vigilant and speak out to protect their rights. The ACLU encourages Americans to mark Banned Books Week by telling their elected officials to preserve our right to privacy and keep censorship out of our libraries.