balancing acts

cover of info lit in the age of algorithms reportThe latest Project Information Literacy report is out, and I hope you’ll have a chance to read it. I was so honored to be able to work on this one and have the opportunity to hear what students have to say about our current information environment. I hope it will contribute in some way to our broadening what we mean by information literacy. These days, as we’re inundated with news and information, we need to prepare students to do more than use libraries for academic purposes. We need to make clearer how the skills students practice in school relate to information use beyond classroom assignments.

I was going to say more about the report, but my attention got waylaid when I listened to an excellent episode of the On the Media podcast (they are all excellent, by the way) that reported from the recent gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia. The rally was planned for MLK day – yes, that’s symbolic. It also happened to be Lobby Day, when Virginians are encouraged to bring their issues to the capital. That day there was only one issue on the agenda, and only one perspective permitted. Second amendment purists brought their body armor, militia insignia, and long guns to say clearly and loudly “our right to bear arms trumps every other right, including your right to disagree with us.”

Nobody was killed. Hurrah. It was considered a success.

But the military cosplay with guns and the violent rhetoric leading up to the day (including the arrests of terrorists who allegedly planned to use it as ground zero for their fantasy race war) meant nobody else had free and safe access to that public square. The memory of violence at a previous rally in Virginia, whipped up on right wing internet channels, was too fresh, so it was only a success for second amendment purists: look, we’re so civil we didn’t kill anyone! It was not a success for freedom of speech. Not a success for democracy.

Here comes the library angle. (You knew there would be one, right?) We’ve had a couple of serious “oops” moments recently. The ALA (which not too long ago made the case that the first amendment meant libraries had to allow hate groups to hold gatherings on their premises if they offer public meeting rooms – oops) decided to set aside a “free speech” area at a national conference. Oops. After much Twitter outrage, the policy was reconsidered. More seriously, the National Archives altered a photo to avoid offending Trump supporters, claiming it was an attempt to be “neutral” and then had to apologize because archivists don’t normally deface history. Oops.

Libraries and archives cannot be neutral because their values are not neutral – or simple. Libraries support freedom of expression, but it cannot come at the expense of equal protection for community members. And it certainly cannot involve penning up discussion in limited areas or altering our past. The fact people in positions to make these decisions weren’t immediately aware of how contrary to our core values they were is a sign of the times, a sign of the normalization of creeping authoritarianism.

cover of Cult of the ConstitutionI was very struck by the argument Mary Anne Franks made in her book, The Cult of the Constitution, that we have over-emphasized two amendments while virtually ignoring another. In the second half of the twentieth century the left developed a knee-jerk belief in the primacy of free speech; the right did the same for bearing arms, both sides claiming an absolutist interpretation was necessary to fend off tyranny, though in their zeal they silence and tyrannize those who disagree. Franks advises us to pay greater attention to the fourteenth amendment, which is routinely violated but which could, read in concert with other Constitutional rights, help us find some balance.

Libraries get tied up in knots when their extreme defense of free speech denies members of its community equal protection. Let’s aim for both, and when these rights come in conflict, let’s find reasonable ways to find a balance without assuming one automatically trumps the other.


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