With a Joyful Return to In-Person, ALA Annual Hosted a Censorship Discussion. A Twitter Controversy Ensued.

The ALA community was elated to be face-to-face again, talking about issues that matter to the industry. Comments made during a Unite Against Book Bans panel set off a Twitter firestorm that laid bare the emotion and complexities of the censorship discussion.

The 2022 American Library Association (ALA) Annual conference prompted a lot of book love, joy, and celebration and at least one Twitter-fueled controversy threatening to overshadow some of the positive feelings from the first in-person ALA conference since January 2020.

In a June 25 panel on book banning by Unite Against Book Bans (an ALA-launched national campaign people to fight censorship), author and former librarian Nancy Pearl referenced a time when she worked at the Tulsa Public Library and kept a Holocaust denial book on the shelves despite being disgusted by it. The subject resurfaced in comments from panelist, author, and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds and Pearl during the panel as they discussed the “hard truth” when it comes to censorship: Can you be anti-book banning yet want to remove access to some materials? (See full transcript of the comments below.)

A librarian who was at the event tweeted about Pearl and Reynolds referencing the Holocaust denial comments, which set off a Twitter firestorm joined by many who were not at the panel. The Twitter uproar surfaced discussions not only about the dangers of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial but also of the risk of making quick accusations and the pressures that people of color face in live, public forums. 

Christopher Stewart, librarian at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, DC, whose student Jorge Flores was on the panel, was shocked by original tweet, saying that no part of the event felt controversial or tense to him, but instead like a thoughtful discussion among friends as people tried to figure out the way through what can be a complicated and fraught subject.

“It was like sitting in the living room, and we were just having a conversation,” says Stewart. “It was a conversation between Jorge, Nancy, and Jason.”

Listening to the discussion, Stewart didn’t focus on the Holocaust denial example Pearl used, as much as what he believed she was trying to say: “How can we censor if we're saying that we shouldn't be banning? How can we say, ‘Oh, no, let's not have this, even as despicable as it is,’” he says. “So, we can have that rich conversation and still saying that this is wrong, very wrong.”

In his Socratic seminars with his high school students, Stewart says, they often tackle difficult and controversial topics. They discuss how and why people might think the things that they do, as well as how to have what Stewart believes are important conversations with those people with whom the students may vehemently disagree.

“I want them to be very comfortable being uncomfortable and be comfortable in disagreement,” he says.

The emotional debate distracted from the original intent of the panel: a discussion of censorship focused on those fighting for the freedom to read and the importance of continuing to fight despite the challenges.

In an interview with SLJ, Nora Pelizzari, director of communications the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) said that when discussing censorship people can get caught on the specific example as opposed to the big picture of intellectual freedom.

“Using extreme examples of the darkest points of human history, or the darkest ideas that we can imagine as a people moves us away from the point, which is that people need to be allowed to explore intellectually in the ways that they choose,” says Pelizzari. “I'm not going to sit here and say I think libraries should stock Holocaust denial books. That’s not a thing I’m willing to say.

“But one can certainly argue that there are reasons why access to ideas that we find despicable is important. We have to be able to access the ideas that people hold that we want to disagree with. It’s’’ fairly settled that Mein Kampf is an important primary source that needs to be accessible in order to study the origins of the Holocaust. So, ideas being despicable is not reason enough to ban books from our [NCAC’s] perspective.”

For NCAC, an individual’s moral “line” or personal opinion should never be a factor in book removal, adds Pelizzari. That includes not only politicians or community members, but also librarians.

“An idea being dangerous is not reason enough to prevent access to it,” says Pelizzari. “If someone wants to access information, they should be able to. When we start empowering anyone, including government officials and public employees, to make decisions about what ideas we are and are not allowed to access, we’re getting into very dangerous territory.

“There are people who would say that anything written by anyone who supported Donald Trump is misinformation and therefore should not be shelved in the library. Similarly, there are people who would say anything that talks about the experience of being a trans kid is misinformation and shouldn't be allowed in the library. But those people's opinions are not relevant to the decision making. If the librarian decides that a book is valuable for the community, or there are people in that community that want to access particular information, the library's role is to sort of assist in that access.”


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