Libraries, Free Speech, and Public Responsibility
VTR Date: July 17, 1981
Intellectual freedom specialist Judith Krug discusses the censorship of books in the U.S.
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GUEST: Judith Krug
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. On a rather crass note, I have always considered myself fortunate that over the past 30 years the royalties I have received on two little books could provide for my son’s education. More importantly of course has been the sheer pleasure that I have derived from knowing how many students and others over these years have shared the ideas I set forth in my Documentary History of the United States and my edition of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. But it wasn’t always so easy, for all history, as the late, great Charles Beard noted, “Is an act of faith”. And when in the McCarthy days the powers that were decided that they didn’t share my historian’s faith, some of them didn’t permit its expression either. And for a while my books disappeared from certain bookshelves. Of course they came back and are still there now. But that experience provided for me an exquisitely painful and personal insight into quite how fearful and frightening the censorship of books or magazines or newspapers or movies or any other expressions of thought can be. And that’s why I’ve read with such absolute dismay recent issues of The American Library Association’s Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, and why I’ve invited as my guest today the Library Association’s Director since 1967 of the Office for Intellectual Freedom. Judith Krug is coeditor of the ALA Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, and has pointed out recently that attempts to censor books in our nation’s libraries have more than tripled since the presidential election of 1980.
Judith Krug, thanks for joining me here on The Open Mind to talk about a subject that I know you consider terribly important and that I do too. And I wanted to start off by asking how you account for this grim statistic, for this spate of censorship cases around the country.
Krug: Well, I think that first of all that any time we live in a very complex and tension-ridden society, the number of censorship incidents increase. And we’ve seen it in the very recent past, for instance during the Watergate turmoil that this country went through, the level of censorship attempts increased. Today we’re living in a very tension-ridden society. There’s a lot of problems, none of which we can control as individuals on day-to-day basis. And true to the American way of looking at the world, there have to be simple and fast solutions somewhere. And in terms of education, in terms of children, and in terms of tax dollars, and of course children and tax dollars do come together in both the educational process and in libraries. The simple solution to try to resolve or solve some of the problems is censorship. You remove a book with certain ideas, the book and the ideas are out of view. Very simple and very easy. I don’t feel it’s a very good solution, but it is the kind of solution that many people are looking at today.
Heffner: And you do believe in terms of the statistics that you’ve offered more today let’s say than a couple of years ago?
Krug: Oh, definitely. We’re running at least three time above what we were doing say this time last year. And that number actually is down slightly from what it was during the height of the school year. We generally tend to have substantially more problems during the school year than we do at other times during the year. But in this year and for the past six months we’ve been at least three times ahead of what we were in a comparable period of time last year.
Heffner: What’s the nature of these problems? What happens in a library or a school library?
Krug: One individual or a group of people typically come in, they see the book on the shelf, or they come into a library or to a classroom specifically looking for a particular book, take it off the shelves in some instances in a library setting, the individuals just check the book out and say, “I’m not going to return it because I don’t feel that anyone else should have a chance to read it”, or “I don’t want my children to read it, and therefore I don’t want anybody’s children to read it”. Sometimes they’ll take the book – and of course we’ve had experiences in all of these kinds of situations 0—to a powerful figure and that powerful figure can be either a principal of the school or superintendent, or in the case of a library, to a head librarian. Or they go beyond the actual institution and its administrative structure and will go to a member of the board of trustees or the board of education, and sometimes directly to, for instance, a city council member and try to elicit support to remove these materials from the community. And that community can be a school community or it can be an entire community such as the public library serves.
Heffner: Well, as I read your, the recent issues of your publication, there’s case after case after case. What happens to them? What is happening to these efforts o censor?
Krug: It takes a long time, and I’m delighted about that, to get any given piece of literature off the shelves in a library permanently. Sometimes of course the library staff or the governing authority of the library become so concerned about the censorship pressures that are being brought to bear they will quite blatantly just remove the book and say, “We will go through the review process, and depending on what the outcome of that is, will reshelve it or get rid of it for good”. We – and “we” being the American Library Association – suggest that no book be removed from a shelf until it has enjoyed a due process procedure. In other words, review the book, look at not only the reviews of the book but look at the reasons for which any given piece of literature was selected for a given library collection.
Heffner: Judith, that sounds very much like the old rule of thumb. Don’t hang ‘em until you try ‘em. Are you suggesting – and I gather you are…
Krug: Yes, I am. (Laughter)
Heffner: …that due process can legitimately result in taking books off the library shelves?
Krug: Yes, it can. If you have a procedure and you go through the procedure we find out sometimes – and I will say that very rarely this happens, but occasionally it does – that a mistake’s been made.
Heffner: What do you mean, “a mistake”?
Krug: Well, I had a fascinating case in Texas. In fact, it never really got to a case. A woman came to me and she explained that for her particular library she buys all Texas authors as well as a lot of other people. And she had found a book by a person, by a man whose name was identical to a Texas author, and without checking further she had bought the book. It turns out that it was not the author she thought it was. Indeed, the man had just picked up the name as a pseudonym, and it was not exactly library fare. Indeed it was one of those few books that had been outlawed in certain countries as being graphically pornographic. It just was not appropriate for that library. And the minute she investigated the author and looked at the book she knew she had made a mistake, she took it off the shelf.
Heffner: Okay, so that you’re not saying no book can or should be removed from school library shelves or library shelves?
Krug: Library, across the board. The incident I just related was a public library incident. Occasionally public libraries make mistakes too. However, because the community or the constituency that public libraries serve is a much broader one than say the one that school libraries serve. I suspect that the quote, mistakes, end quote made by public libraries are substantially less than say they are in school libraries.
Heffner: When in your estimation, what’s the level at which, what’s the threshold at which a mistake has been made? Let’s take public libraries, not school libraries.
Krug: I can’t make that determination for any given institution. That really depends on the institution itself. The American Library Association’s position is that every library in the country really has to determine for itself, knowing its constituency, the people that it serves, what is appropriate literature for that collection. Now, I’m not saying when I talk about their constituency I’m not talking about the most powerful or the most vocal, but I’m talking about everyone. And of course that includes the most powerful and the most vocal.
Heffner: Now, now, let me understand. What are some of the books that have been attacked and taken off of shelves recently?
Heffner: Some of the more popular books, some of the ones we’d recognize.
Krug: Our Bodies Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Collective. In my opinion – and it is my opinion – probably one of the best books available today on female sexuality. It does remove the mystique from femininity and is creating grave difficulties in many libraries across the country. It has been restricted in many high school libraries. And “restricted” can mean that it’s on a separate shelf and that the students may not have access to it except with written permission of their parents. In some cases it has been totally removed from the high school collection and placed only in a teacher’s collection. But this book has come under attack in public libraries also.
Heffner: Now, how about classics? Because as I understand it on occasions those are the stories that make the newspapers. A classic book, a very popular novel.
Krug: Like the Grapes of Wrath?
Heffner: Okay, let’s take the Grapes of Wrath.
Krug: We’ve had some problems with the Grapes of Wrath.
Heffner: Are you suggesting, Judith, that in a community, the Grapes of Wrath has been identified as providing a message or using language or telling a story that a group of people find anathema, and they take what you would consider the appropriate steps, due process is followed, and that book, because the community in which the library is located has decided, not just one person, not just a powerful person, but the majority, let’s say, who sometimes…
Krug: Well, that wouldn’t happen. What happens is the same as happens in any institutional setting. There are either elected or appointed representatives.
Krug: …who indeed represent the entire community, and they make the final decision.
Heffner: All right. Now, we’ve gone through this due process.
Heffner: Well, it’s representative.
Heffner: Okay? And we’ve not equated those two in this country, but we have a happy balance between the two. Now, are you suggesting that you would be accepting – not satisfied – but accepting of a decision by such a procedure to take Grapes of Wrath off a library shelf or school library, either one?
Krug: I cannot honestly believe that if a due process procedure were followed in terms of Grapes of Wrath – because we’re limiting our discussion to that title – that the book would end up being removed from the library. There are instances where the Grapes of Wrath has been removed from library collections.
Heffner: Through this due process?
Krug: No, that’s just it. Due process procedure can be written down. But unless the powers that be, tee people who administer that procedure – and I’m talking about not the librarian but the board of trustees – is not willing to force a complainant into the procedure, sometimes we lose materials without the book ever having its day in court, so to speak.
Heffner: Judith, has there been a case in the last two or three years with which you are familiar in which due process has been followed and yet a book has been taken off of a shelf at the end of that process that you think, that you would have decided otherwise about? You would have left it on the shelf?
Krug: Oh, yes.
Heffner: Fair question?
Krug: Yes, it is. And there are many instances where this has happened. We had a situation not too long ago in one of our western states where several of Judy Blume’s books were removed. They went through the entire review process, but the books were removed. And I thought it was too bad. Judy Blume is probably the most popular young adult and children’s author in the country today. The young people love her materials, what she writes. My children read them all. They loved them. They read them probably before most children read them, and I had no qualms about that. We have a lot of problems with adults who read Judy Blume’s materials because she writes without a moral. She’s writing in the children’s language, she’s writing to the problems of children and young people, such questions as a serious illness that may or may not be incapacitating, such as scoliosis, which does deform the child but still permits him or her to function. She talks about the onset of menstruation. She talks about the kinds of problems that overweight children run into in their own natural habitat in school and in home. And she uses the language of young people. And the kids love her because she’s talking to them in their language and about their problems. That adults read her books and say, “There’s no moral”. And therefore the book is bad.
Heffner: Well, let’s stick then with Judy Blume for a moment. Those books were taken off the shelf after due process, and you say, you said a moment ago you felt that was too bad.
Krug: Yes, I did.
Heffner: Period? End of case?
Krug: End of case as far as the American Library Association is concerned, unless someone who is directly involved in the issue comes back to us and says, ‘Can you help us go further”? Now, that can be, going further can be one of many activities that can be initiated in my office. It might be requesting that the school board or whoever made the final decision review their decision and look at it in another light. Sometimes it helps, and sometimes that happens. It might be that somebody in my office is to talk to the community, and tries to just discern whether the community itself is concerned and would like to reinstitute those books on whatever shelf they’ve been removed from, whether it’s school or public library. And sometimes there’s a possibility of a court suit, of legal action. And white the legal capability is not directly related or is not directly a part of the American Library Association, the Association has set up a legal defense unit called the Freedom to Read Foundation. And I serve as Executive Director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, so that we do have within my office the flexibility to determine what is the appropriate mechanism through which to fight further, if indeed we’re asked to fight further. I can’t determine for any community or for any institution that a book should not have been removed. The reason I can’t is, number one, every library in this country has been urged by ALA to develop their own collection – and I’ve already said this – according to what their own community needs and wants. Secondly, particularly if the book has enjoyed due process, what do you do? Throw out due process because the issue didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to turn out? If someone in the community is willing to carry the case further and is willing to say, “Okay, I’ll put my name on a complaint”, we will explore it. But you have to look at it on the other side, Dick. What happens if there is a book that I personally or you personally did not like and you wanted that book off the shelf? And you complained about the book, and it went through due process, and it was removed. And somebody, a strange comes in from outside and says, “That book should be in the library, and I’ll help you get it back in”. And you say, “But I don’t want your help. I’m happy to accept this”. You see, you have to look at those sides of the question. I’m willing to live with structure and procedure, despite the fact that I don’t always like the outcome. I can live with that.
Heffner: Judith, there was an expression, it’s kicking around still, something about a higher law. I’m not surprised. I thought i understood what the procedures were. And I remember having something of the same discussion with Harriet Pilpel at this table not too terribly long ago about that higher law that says that community A or B or C in its majority voice can wish this, but that in this country where you have a tradition, a heritage of intellectual freedom, and you are the head of the Office of Intellectual Freedom…
Krug: That’s right.
Heffner: …at the ALA, that says that ideas and books don’t kill, and taking them off the shelf, making them totally unavailable – and I presume that’s what you’re talking about; not putting them in a reserve section – when I was a kid there were books behind glass, and a parent had to provide permission, etcetera, to see them, but…
Krug: We still have some of that, but not a lot.
Heffner: Okay, but y0ou’re talking about something much more drastic. Doesn’t it bother you?
Krug: Oh, I said it bothers me. It bothers me immensely.
Heffner: And yet you’ve accepted…
Krug: And yet…let me go back. When we start selecting materials for any library we are selecting, as I said, for the entire community. There can be a fringe group of a fringe person who wants specific ideas represented in the library collection, and he or she has the same opportunity to acquire, to have the library acquire those materials that you and I – and I am putting you and me in the majority right now – want the library to acquire. So you start out saying that the library is the only real First Amendment institution in this country. I happen to believe that. It’s the only place where all points of view are represented.
Heffner: Unless the majority of the community has taken it off the shelves.
Krug: Yes, but because you take off one book does not mean, number one, that that book is lost to the country, because we never, well, we haven’t for about 32 years had a trade publication banned in this country. It might be removed in a local institution. It might make it difficult for specific individuals in that community to read that book. But that book’s available. And if somebody wants it badly enough, except in, let me think, one recent instant where the board absolutely forbade the librarian to get the book via interlibrary loan from another institution, you can bring it in through interlibrary loan. My concern is having an orderly process. If you’re using taxpayers’ money, you have to provide for the public to have their input. The public can have their input in terms of acquisition, but what if something comes up that they truly feel is harmful? Then again they should have the right to make their point of view known. And they don’t always win, Dick. In fact, thank heavens, a lot of time they don’t win. But you have to, you have to draw the line; and I draw the line at procedure. Because I cannot go the next step and say that as long as I believe it is right, then it should be in the library.
Heffner: Oh, I don’t think…
Krug: And I can’t give that, I can’t put that responsibility on the shoulders of the librarians.
Heffner: Judith, I don’t think anyone would say because you believe or I believe that it is right…
Krug: As much as I would like to say that (Laughter).
Heffner: No, no, no. no, you wouldn’t. But because it is a book, because it expresses an idea, because someone believes it’s right.
Krug: That’s right.
Heffner: You don’t, I don’t, Voltaire doesn’t, but defends to the death the library’s right and perhaps need to give expression to that idea. Whatever happened to John Stuart Mill? Where are the notions of On Liberty?
Krug: It’s still there, but you know how we overcome the problem?
Krug: You generate community support. We win every case and we keep every book on the shelf where the community becomes involved, where the community stands up and says, “I might not agree with that idea, but I’m going to stand up and defend it”. I haven’t recently heard anyone say that, “I will give my life to defend it”. But when the community joins us in protecting the ideas that are represented in those materials, we win. We win every time.
Heffner: Oh, sure. By definition. That’s tautological.
Krug: But if they don’t care, I can fight the battle all the way up to the Supreme Court – and we have—but if the Supreme Court says no, what am I supposed to do?
Heffner: You know, in your March 1981 Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, there’s a big banner headline there, or to the side, “North Carolina Moral Majority Listing ‘Harmful School Books’”. And I gather that there are those who claim that they are A, moral, and B, in the majority, who are increasingly trying to do what we’re talking about.
Krug: Well, as a matter of fact, in the past six months by far the majority – (Laughter) and I’m using it in a quantitative manner – the majority of the complaints have been brought in schools and in public libraries by individuals who identified themselves to the librarians as fundamentalists, as members of the Moral Majority, as people who were not really members but believed in what is known as the quote, moral majority, end quote. Yes, that’s where the pressures are coming from today. Tomorrow I guarantee you it’s going to come from the left of center of the political spectrum. We’re still getting complaints about Huckleberry Finn because it’s racist. In fact, it was removed in a community very close to my hometown of Chicago not too long ago. We’re still getting complaints.
Heffner: Because the community wanted it removed?
Krug: Because one individual complained, went to the appropriate power center. The pressure was brought to bear. The community made feeble protests, and the city council had its way. The book was removed from the high school library.
Heffner: so we close our books on that because due process was followed.
Krug: Well, due process wasn’t followed, but the pressure came from the city council in that particular instance. However, that doesn’t change the outcome. You see, I can’t be running all over this country saying, “(Gasp) you didn’t do this or you didn’t do that”. If the procedure is in place, and if the people who administer the procedure have the fortitude as it were to force complainants to use the process, then we at least have a fighting chance of keeping the books where they belong, and that’s in the public view.
Heffner: You know, the funny thing is that i expected that on this program I was going to have to say, “Well now, Judith Krug, you’ve defended the right of any and every book to appear, whatever the community might say”. And I was going to ask you whether you didn’t have some sympathy or empathy with those people who, claiming or not claiming that they’re part of a Moral Majority, really don’t’ want their kids brought up against – now I’m talking about school libraries – certain materials.
Krug: Look, I do have empathy for them, if not sympathy. I’m raising children of my own. I have never, and I doubt that i ever will, look at my children and say, “No, you can’t read that”, or, “I don’t want you to read that”. Because I honestly believe that if anyone should have total and free access to all the information and all the ideas available, it should be young people. But not everyone agrees with me. And if people will leave my children alone so that I can provide them with what I think is important, then I will say, “Control your children if that’s what you want to do”. I will cry for those children, but I can’t interfere with someone else’s child raising as long as they leave my kids alone and the collection in my library alone so that my children have total access to it. I give them that access. Parents do have responsibility for their children in this country until they reach the age of majority, and they do have legal rights. I may not like what i see in terms of parents saying to children, “You may not read that”. I’m not going to interfere with that. It’s not my business.
Heffner: You know, Judith, it turns out that with most programs I say, “Gee, our time is up, and you have to come back another tie”. I can’t even believe that I’m getting the signal that our time is up because there’s so many more things that I want to talk about.
Krug: Oh really? (Laughter)
Heffner: But that’s the way it is. Thank you so much for joining me today, Judith Krug.
Krug: You’re welcome.
Heffner: Thanks, too, to you in the audience. And I hope you too will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”