Archived Webinar: Librarians and the Freedom to Read

This post originally appeared on SAGE Connection and is used with permission.

Last month, SAGE Publishing — the parent of Social Science Space — partnered with the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom to hold the webinar Battling Bannings- Authors discuss intellectual freedom and the freedom to read.  Moderated by Index on Censorship’s Vicky Baker, the webinar featured Christine Baldacchino, author of Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, Jessica Herthel, co-author of I Am Jazz, and Wendy Doniger, author of The Hindus: An Alternative History, which portrays the history of Hinduism outside of mainstream perspectives, and On Hinduism.

Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, saw an Indian civil court find The Hindus insulting to Hindus. Penguin, her publisher in India, withdrew the book and had copies pulped

During the webinar, the three discussed the opposition their books faced, from negative reviews to bannings in school libraries to lawsuits challenging publishers to cease publication. They spoke about how they responded to these controversies, the importance of protecting the freedom to read and how librarians can help, and why diverse ideas should be respected, whether or not we agree with them. The recorded webinar appears above, and the slides from the event at the bottom of this file.

The speakers did not have enough time to get to all audience questions at the end of the webinar, but were happy to answer some remaining questions here. See below to read extra insight and presentation slides.

Did any of you use a lawyer or a publicist to fight back?  Did it help?

Jessica Herthel: We did not use a lawyer or a publicist. I used to work as a lawyer, so I reference that when I am explaining state or federal laws surrounding transgender students… but thankfully we have not found ourselves defending the book in a courtroom thus far!

Wendy Doniger: Penguin Books, India, did indeed employ a whole team of lawyers to fight the lawsuit, and it kept the book in print for four years. Indeed, at one point I asked when they thought the case would come to court, and got the reply, “The lawyers are stalling in order to keep the book in print as long as possible.” In other words, they feared that they would lose the case if they went to court, and so were trying at least to fend off the evil day. We’ll never know whether they could have won the case or not.

What part of the world do you find the least tolerant?

Christine Baldacchino: People in various countries have had their issues with the book, and no matter the country those issues all boil down to the same three: boys shouldn’t wear dresses, this book goes against God’s teachings, and the author has an agenda to turn our children into homosexuals. Because of that, I wouldn’t say one country has been more or less tolerant than the others (thus far). In Malta, where my family is from, people who protested the book managed to successfully have copies of Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress removed from classroom libraries. Here in Canada, there have been a few instances where a child will have borrowed the book and that child’s parent will promptly make that child return it, then proceed to try to have it removed from shelves. And, of course, there was that issue in Grand Rapids, Michigan where a father went to his local news station in an effort to bring enough attention to my evil agenda as Satan’s pied piper to lead and indoctrinate America’s children into the homosexual lifestyle. Fortunately, despite that father’s best efforts, Morris Micklewhite is still enjoying his time (and his beloved tangerine dress) there.

Jessica Herthel: It would be a regrettable knee-jerk reaction to say that countries in the Middle East are least tolerant of LGBT books like I Am Jazz: first, because that is a generalization that stems from Islamophobia, and second, because our book has not actually been published in the Middle East yet, and so I have no factual firsthand information on which to base such an assessment. The more accurate answer is that bigotry and prejudice against LGBT people exist, to varying degrees, in all parts of the world. The remedy is the increased global visibility of LGBT people; the celebration of their vast contributions to art, medicine, and science; and the sharing of diverse stories to increase our empathy for someone we might have once viewed as an “Other.”

Do authors feel that it is easier to defend their books today than it has been in decades past?  If so, why, how?

Christine Baldacchino: I think the advent of the internet and social media has been a double-edged sword for socially-conscious writers. It both makes it easier for those who are opposed to progressive works to express their anger and organize like-minded people to shut down access to those works, but it also makes it easier for authors to defend themselves and rally supporters of their writing around them.

Jessica Herthel: The answer is both. It is easier to defend a challenged book these days in the sense that an author can, for example, utilize social media, or write an essay on the The Huffington Post, or create a personal blog to address a critic or a question.  By that same token, the Internet has given a platform to EVERY SINGLE PERSON who wants to attack a book, meaning that there are just that many more criticisms and questions to respond to!  In the end, however, if I want to stand by my assertion that the answer to hate speech is more speech, then I have to celebrate the freedom we’ve all been given online, and assert that it has never been easier to defend a challenged book.

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SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space, is a leading international publisher of journals, books, and electronic media for academic, educational, and professional markets. An independent company, SAGE has principal offices in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Melbourne and Washington DC.

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