A statewide survey of censorship and intellectual freedom.

Author:Monks, Kathleen M.

Every September, libraries, bookstores, publishers, and book lovers across the country observe Banned Books Week. The annual celebration of the freedom to read raises awareness of censorship in libraries with events, displays, and social media campaigns that highlight the most commonly challenged titles of the previous year as well as historical challenges. Data compiled by the American Library Association (ALA) and the Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) are used to create helpful lists of frequently challenged books and the reasons for the challenges. According to the ALA, there were 464 reported challenges in 2012 (Banned Books Week, 2013), but the ALA estimates that as many as 80% of challenges go unreported (Office for Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Association, 2010). This raises the question: what are the policies and practices of librarians regarding challenges in our own state?

Following this line of inquiry led to further interest in and exploration of the topics of challenges and, more broadly, censorship. As our research progressed, questions such as how often challenges to library materials occur, and when and how those challenges are made public emerged and expanded our scope. Through this study we have gathered a foundational understanding of censorship practices in the state of Idaho, with some revealing data on the rate of disclosure.


General history of censorship

The attitude of librarians toward censorship of library materials has changed much since the beginnings of professional American librarianship in the late nineteenth century. Early on librarians were advocates for censorship (Robbins, 1996) and encouraged a very selective acquisition of materials in library collections. The favoring of censorship and strict selection wavered over time, but it was not until 1939 that the ALA adopted its first Library Bill of Rights. This document outlined what would become the hallmark policy statement on intellectual freedom involving library materials (Office for Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Association, 2010). With the creation of the Intellectual Freedom Committee in 1948, librarians began to advocate neutrality and impartiality in book selection (Robbins, 1996). The history of censorship and the library profession is long and detailed, and for more information we recommend Geller's Forbidden Books in American Public Libraries and Robbins' Censorship and the American Library.

History of Censorship in Idaho

We chose to focus on the state of Idaho for our survey due to our residence in the state, but also because of the apparent lack of data of this kind in a state-focused manner. Historic background for this study can be found in Eli M. Oboler's research on censorship. Oboler, a strong advocate of intellectual freedom in libraries, was the head librarian at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho from 1949-1980 and was active in professional organizations, including serving as president of the Idaho Library Association (ILA) (1950-1953) and the Pacific Northwest Library Association (PNLA) (1955-1956), as well as vice president of the Freedom to Read Foundation (1979-1980) (ISU, 2013). A prolific author, Oboler published over two-hundred articles and books. The ALA presents a biennial eponymous award, the Eli M. Oboler Memorial Award, to the best published work related to intellectual freedom.

In one 1962 study, Oboler surveyed Idaho librarians on the theoretical actions they would take if the school board ordered them to remove Catcher in the Rye from the collection. Oboler found that the survey responses indicated "laudable courage and strength among Idaho school librarians" who "know how to combat censorship and are prepared to do so, in a professional and constructive and tactful and cooperative way" (1980). In other writings, Oboler discusses pornography and obscenity laws in Idaho, the struggle to maintain First Amendment rights, book selection for young adults, and the history of censorship, especially in relation to human sexuality. Oboler indicates in much of his work that the intellectual freedom issues and cases in Idaho could be comparable to almost any other state and it is only in the frequency of "independent, ultraconservative, obscenity-and-curriculum-baiting groups" that Idaho sets itself apart (1980).

Idaho Demographics and Politics

For over a half-century, the Republican Party has been the predominant political party in Idaho. Since 1952 its citizens have voted for a Democratic president only once, with the 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson election, and elected Democratic governors three times. According to a recent Gallup poll, Idaho is the second most conservative state in the nation, with 53.6 percent of the population leaning Republican (2013). The demographic makeup of the state is predominantly Caucasian, with an estimated 93.8% of the population identifying as white (U.S. Census, 2012). The state is also home to several Native American reservations, and the Hispanic population of the state has grown rapidly in recent years, with a 73% increase over the past decade (National Journal, 2013). In addition, 51% of citizens belong to a religious body (ASARB, 2010), with most affiliated with Mormon, Protestant, or Catholic churches (Pew Forum, 2008).

Literature Review

Libraries and the First Amendment

Attorney Theresa Chmara writes that public libraries are "designated public forums for the receipt of information," indicating that any attempts to suppress access to materials must be viewed in light of the First Amendment (Office for Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Association, 2010). Though the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, courts have found that this right also has a corollary in the right to receive information. This right particularly impacts libraries but, according to law professor Marc Blitz, has been neglected by scholars who have focused more on the expressive aspect of the First Amendment (2006). Public libraries in particular maintain a large degree of protection under the First Amendment, and any form of restriction by the government must be narrowly focused in regards to a "compelling interest" (Office for Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Association, 2010).

School libraries have been embroiled in the most court cases and helped set the majority of legal precedent on censorship. Though the Supreme Court determined that students maintain First Amendment protections in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), these rights are not as absolute for students as they are for adults. Though an appeals court affirmed schools' rights to control both curriculum and school library materials in Presidents Council District 25 v. Community School Board No. 25 (1972), in 1981 the Supreme Court ruled that school districts could not remove books from the library simply because they objected to the ideas within them, in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico. Courts have generally sided with school districts in the right to control curriculum, a standard reinforced by Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlemeier (1988), which found that schools had the right to suppress student speech when directly tied to class activities, but have applied higher scrutiny in regards to extra-curricular censorship, including within school libraries. History professor Henry Reichman notes that courts have shown three standards should be met when attempting to remove books from a school library: 1) Personal opposition to ideas within the text is not a valid reason for removal; 2) Acceptable reasons for removal include space, age, "educational suitability," and "pervasive vulgarity;" 3) Districts must follow established procedures when deciding whether to remove an item (2001). Librarian and author Herbert Foerstel argues that past cases instigated by parents and community members show one of the strongest defenses against banning attempts within schools and libraries is "enlightened school boards and supportive courts" (2002).

Professor W. Bernard Lukenbill and James F. Lukenbill, a data/analytics manager, studied the knowledge of school librarians in relation to prominent censorship court cases, including the Pico ruling. They surveyed a group of Texas librarians and found that for nearly all cases a majority was not aware of the case, and only a minority claimed they had a thorough understanding of its significance. This lack of knowledge, especially about the Pico case, which was highlighted in the study for being the only school library case to reach the Supreme Court, led the authors to argue that the findings "may imply that [school librarians] may not completely understand students' First Amendment rights of free speech and students' rights to receive information" (Lukenbill & Lukenbill, 2007).

Idaho Law

Although minors enjoy First Amendment protections to receive information, there are more limits on their rights than adults. Materials that adults can access under constitutional protection may be designated as obscene or harmful for minors. Under this broadened definition, a number of states have instituted "harmful to minors" laws, including the state of Idaho. Idaho restricts the dissemination of materials deemed harmful to minors, with punishment including imprisonment or fine (Disseminating Material Harmful to Minors, 1972). However, an affirmative defense constitutes that "the defendant was a bona fide school, college, university, museum or public library, or was acting in his capacity as an employee...

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