Toward a humane ethical framework in Intellectual Freedom

Content Warning: transphobia, racism, gender- and race-related violence

The following post is an expanded version of an email sent to the Intellectual Freedom Committee regarding concerns about the open letter sent to Library Journal with the demand to revoke the Library of the Year award from The Seattle Public Library. You can read the reasons why this demand is made, as well as sign the open letter if you so choose, at

Hello everyone,

I initially was not planning on publicly responding to this thread. In my private reply to [name redacted], I expressed uncertainty about the appropriateness/safeness of a sub-committee member to comment on the main IFC threads. After reflecting on that sentiment for some time, this is a time where I need to get past those reservations and add yet another perspective in the discussion, procedural formalities be damned.

First, disclaimers – I am another signatory of the open letter. I am also a former employee of SPL (left in January 2019). I will keep my comments about SPL to a minimum, but I want to remind everyone that while MT does have considerable power within SPL and his actions contributed to what transpired in February, he is beholden to the Library Board of Trustees, including Board President Jay Reich. It was the Board that made the final decision to uphold the meeting reservation and not to revise the meeting room policy.

While the legal aspects of Intellectual Freedom (IF) are also in play in the SPL situation, it would be better served in a separate thread. I also do not want to take away from the important work that is being done under the name of IF concerning challenged books. I want to focus on the ethics of the application of IF to meeting rooms. My glimpses into the main IF discourse around meeting rooms has concerned me for some time.

The format that stores and delivers information influences its reception by its audience. In print, digital, and oral culture research, you will find that in different periods of history particular formats had different levels of legitimacy and trust attached to them. The level of trustworthiness of this information was judged partly by how the information was delivered. The written word was not automatically given the same authority or trust found in oral transmission in some cultures; in those cultures, the values eventually changed to grant that trust. (It should be noted that some cultures today still place high value and trust in the oral word over other formats). Even today we see this with print and digital formats – an example is a college professor who demands that their students find and copy a physical, print version of an article when the digital copy is also available. This is due to the level of trust in print over the trust of digital (remember when we all said not to use Wikipedia at all?), but again that trust is changing.

A major difference between a library’s collections and the in-person events is how information is transmitted. The act of reading is “slow” – the reader can go at their own pace. The resource doesn’t demand immediate feedback from its reader. The act of speaking is “fast” – if you are attending a live discussion, there might not be room to reflect, lest you miss the speaker’s next point. Undivided attention is demanded. The speaker or other audience members might engage with you even if you’re not ready. You also get the chance to interact with others in real-time, creating an immediate feedback loop that can be reinforced with continued human interaction.

Both print and oral methods have the element of trust in the information being delivered, but the potential impact is where these two diverge. A print resource can bring strong emotions or move someone to action as much as someone’s talk – the difference is that reading gives someone the time to process, while audience members can enter into the feedback loop without time to process what they just consumed. The more you reinforce the feedback loop, the stronger it becomes.

What does this have to do with the ethics of IF and meeting rooms? Libraries are entrenched in print culture, and with it, the trust of the printed word. In popular culture, the library as an institution is seen as trustworthy in terms of being a place to find “correct” information. I know that we’re all cringing at the use of the term “correct” but we have to realize that our patrons see the library as legitimizer, as expert curator, of the information it provides. We have ourselves to partly blame/thank for this reputation because we advertise ourselves as trusted professionals and “impartial” stewards of information (when in reality humans are inherently biased and true objectivity in Library Science is impossible, but that’s for another thread).

Meeting room events are interpreted as being a part of the library’s duty to curate information. A talk or class held in the meeting room is granted some level of legitimacy with the approval of the event by information stewards. While physical and digital resources are managed through a collection management policy that guides library works in determining appropriate content for the collection, meeting rooms policies give almost no guidance beyond prohibiting certain types of activity, such as charging registration fees or fundraising for political candidates. Meeting rooms under the current IF framework are given much more leeway in terms of the information distributed in those rooms.

The problem comes when we don’t question the assumption in IF that people will research and do their due diligence in coming to their own conclusions no matter the mode of information transmission.  This assumption makes sense when patrons are working with print or digital materials; again, this “slow” act allows patrons the chance to work through ideas that they come across, either on their own or reporting back to a group of their choosing. While there is the possibility of a feedback loop, there are several chances to disrupt it early in the process.

Speeches can be persuasive as printed or digital material, but I’d argue (going back to oral culture) that the impact is greater than these other formats because of the immediate feedback and creation of a feedback loop reinforced by the speaker and other audience members. We also forget that within a marketplace of ideas persuasive ideas can also be deadly ones. A persuasive speaker combined with an active audience feeding into a feedback loop can entrench someone before they are consciously aware of what is happening. This model has even adapted to the digital realm with YouTube, with the speaker creating an active online community in a model that imitates the need for an immediate response as well as reinforcing the feedback loop. The best illustration of this adaptation is the alt-right community on YouTube. Sometimes people break the loop like described in the linked article, but others are driven to act out in real life, often targeting certain people based on the ideas and information provided by these group of speakers. It goes to show how a platform can be gamed to recruit new people into a particularly dangerous ideology, as well as rally existing community members.

Library meeting rooms are not immune to this. Library meeting rooms exist as a platform for hate groups because of the misplaced belief in IF that as long as everyone has a chance to speak, then everyone is treated fairly. The problem is that the group renting the room isn’t interested in dialog – they’re interested in recruiting new members and energizing the base. The group communicates in code – “gender critical” sounds neutral and a reasonable topic for discussion to folks who might be interested in the “debate” promised by the movement, but the phrase is code for the existing base, and a hook to gain new members. The marketplace of ideas embedded in the current set of IF ethics forces people to argue for the right to be recognized to be human, for their very lives. Librarianship’s unquestionable devotion to the marketplace of ideas in meeting rooms is making people plead for their human rights and not to be harassed or even killed because of who they innately are. And when this type of hate speech is held inside the walls of the library, it automatically gains a level of legitimacy because of the inherent trust that the information in the library is curated or vetted by trained experts. This is why giving hate groups space in library meeting rooms is so dangerous – the library is a platform that hate groups leverage for institutional and cultural legitimacy.

You might have guessed at this point that I have a social justice bias, so you might be thinking that the next section calls for the abolishment of IF. That is not the case. There’s still some time to salvage the ethical framework of IF, but the recommendations require a fundamental change from within.

There are many ways that I’ve seen organizations try to do DEI work, only to fail. These same options are not going to be effective here, either. Building a bridge between IF and “social justice” is only a temporary measure if there is only dialog and no follow-up or action. Bringing in someone or a small group to be the “social justice subcommittee” runs dangerously close to tokenism. DEI efforts fail because the people and organizations that create these efforts do not understand that they have to do the work to create a more inclusive environment. The ethics around IF not recognizing the loophole it created for hate groups to use meeting rooms as recruitment and rallying platforms for decades and not adapting to close this loophole goes against the Fifth Law of Library Science. This stagnation itself is an entrenched feedback loop.

There is still hope to get rid of this stagnation if the framework of IF around meeting rooms is willing to evolve to reflect the reality of IF being used by hate groups to legitimize their ideas through the institutional reputation of the library. There are already libraries that have changed their meeting policies to make it very difficult for hate groups to use meeting rooms. NYPL recently was able to cancel a “gender critical” event that was going to be held in their meeting rooms based on their meeting room policy. However, many libraries have not made this change because there is still the IF narrative that an unrestricted marketplace of ideas is best for library meeting rooms. This narrative supported by OIF and ALA is considered the canonical one for libraries to base their policies and practices.

What I’m asking for is a more humane set of ethics in IF surrounding meeting rooms. One that recognizes the differences and realities of print, digital, and oral cultures. One that states that someone’s right to have human rights should not have to be proven by that very person in the marketplace of ideas. One that realizes that hate groups are well organized and subversive, knowing that having the library as a platform further legitimizes their message. One that commits to evolution, and not stagnation steeped in the flawed ideology of neutrality. One that recognizes that the library does not exist in a cultural vacuum and that libraries have an ethical duty to take their part of the responsibility of the harms incurred by their unwillingness to acknowledge as such.

All of this work needs to start within OIF/IFC. If unwilling to do this work, or solely rely on others to do the work, then any effort to humanize the ethics of IF surrounding meeting rooms will most likely fail. We then are stuck in the cycle of more hate groups exploiting the loophole, more protests, more counterprotests, more hate groups exploiting the loophole, etc.

But this doesn’t truly reflect the real cost of all of this has on people’s lives. Back in 2019, Toronto Public Library hosted hate speech denying transgender and non-binary people their basic human rights. Two months later, Julie Berman, a well-known transgender activist, was murdered. While it’s unclear if Julie was at the protests at TPL, I suspect that she at least a role in planning them, given her reputation in advocating for trans rights in the Toronto area. She might have spoken to TPL leadership about their choice to host hate speech. She might have been told that in the interest of intellectual freedom, the speech is allowed in the library and she is always free to protest or request a meeting room to hold her own event at a later date. “The marketplace of ideas is there if you want to plead your case that you’re a valid human being and deserving of rights” – this is the quiet part of the library’s response.

So, when you see people sad, hurt, frustrated, angry, or made about libraries holding hate speech in meeting rooms, they are as such because literal lives are at stake. Giving a legitimizing platform to hate groups on one end and making people argue for their existence on the other end is inhumane and unethical. There are ways to mitigate this harm and to disrupt this cycle at scale. What I’m asking is that those who determine the evolution of the ethical framework of IF to do the work instead of reaching for token gestures or just shutting down.