Libraries have a long history of advocating for intellectual freedom issues. Involved in intellectual freedom issues from its inception in 1876, The American Library Association officially established its Office for Intellectual Freedom on December 1st, 1967.[i] Intellectual freedom issues have typically centered around challenges to books – often on moral, religious, or political grounds. As we have moved into the digital age, however, intellectual freedom concerns have grown to include internet filtering and the freedom to access certain websites and other electronic materials. The importance of these issues is well defined by the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual: “Intellectual freedom is freedom of the mind, and as such, it is a personal liberty and a prerequisite for all freedoms leading to action. Moreover, intellectual freedom, protected by the guarantee of freedoms of speech and press in the First Amendment, forms the bulwark of our constitutional republic.”[ii]
One need not look far to find ample examples of intellectual freedom challenges in Kentucky. A small sample of challenges over the past 25 years is indicative of the breadth of challenged materials; Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Madonna’s Sex, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice Series, and Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: the Black Dossier.Slaughterhouse-Five
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, published in 1969, has been one the most challenged books of the last quarter century. The book can “boast dozens of cases when students, parents, teachers, administrators, librarians and members of the clergy have called for [its] removal or destruction.”[iii] One such incident occurred in Owensboro, Kentucky in October of 1985. Carol Roberts, a parent, found the book to be “just plain despicable.”[iv] She, along with 100 other parents, petitioned to have the book removed from school library shelves. One month later, however, “a meeting consisting of administrators, teachers, and parents voted unanimously that the text remain on the school library shelves.”[v]
A similar challenge of the book met with the same result during April of 1987 in LaRue, Kentucky. Administrators refused to remove the book from school library shelves, with Principal Phil Eason defending the book as one “show[ing] the obscenity of war,” and stating that “we don’t make them [the people opposing the text] read them [books in the library].”[vi]As I Lay Dying
As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner’s classic 1930 novel, is no stranger to censorship challenges. Within an eight year timeframe, the book was contested, with varying results, by at least three different Kentucky school systems. The first of these challenges came in 1986 when, charging “offensive and obscene passages . . . and [the use] of God’s name in vain,” the Graves County School District, Mayfield, KY, banned the book from both public and school libraries.[vii] After much negative media attention and intervention from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Graves County School District reversed their decision and the novel was reinserted into the curriculum.[viii]
The book was again challenged in 1987 by parents of high school students in Somerset, Kentucky. The book, the parents claimed, was “inappropriate because of its profanity and contemplation of masturbation by one character.”[ix] After a review of the complaints levied against then novel, Pulaski County High School decided to keep the book in circulation.
The third challenge to the book came in 1994 when “the novel was banned for a few months by officials at Central High School, in Louisville, Kentucky due to its profanity and questions that various characters express regarding the existence of God.”[x] The book eventually found its way back onto Central High School’s library shelves.Sex
Upon its publication in October of 1992, Madonna’s coffee table book, Sex, generated much controversy. It is unsurprising, then, that the book also became the subject of much debate in the world of public libraries. One such debate took place in 1993 at the Lexington (KY) Public Library.[xi]
Dennis Northrip, a Lexington doctor, moved to have the book restricted on grounds that “he [was] afraid that young children, including his own, might become exposed to the predominantly pornographic material in Sex.”[xii] In response to the library’s rebuttal that “[the library] expects[s] parents to monitor their children’s reading,” Northrip stated that, “There already exists an ordinance [in Lexington] which prevents minors from being exposed to this type of material. The library seems to place itself above the law on that issue.”[xiii] Northrip’s contention, however, was refuted by Assistant County Attorney David Vest who stated that, “the ordinance was not determined to address or make criminal what the library is doing.”[xiv]
After months of public debate, the library’s board of trustees decided “not to allow children under age 18 to have access to Madonna’s book SEX, Playboy magazine, and NC-17 and R-rated videos unless they have signed consent of a parent or guardian.”[xv]Alice Series
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s young adult fiction Alice Series, published between 1985 and 2005, documents the life of Alice McKinley, a girl growing up without her mother. The series’ 16 books are frequently challenged. The series, in fact, “was number 10 on the American Library Association list of the 100 most banned books in 2002 and by 2004 had moved up to the number one position.”[xvi]
In 2005, Alice on the Outside was challenged in Shelbyville, Kentucky by Joe and Candy Riley. The Riley’s primary concern was that the book was “too sexually explicit for middle school students.”[xvii] The challenge was brought to the East Middle School Book Challenge Committee, consisting of the school’s principal, librarian, two middle school teachers, and two parents. The committee’s vote determined that the school would keep the book available. However, Elaine Farris, the school system’s superintendent, “determined that the book would be available only in the librarian’s office and students could request it only with parental permission.”[xviii]League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier
Alan Moore’s graphic novel, League of Extraordinary Gentleman: the Black Dossier, was, in late 2008 and early 2009, at the center of an intellectual freedom debate in Jessamine County, Kentucky. The challenge in this case, however, was not brought by a concerned parent, but by a Jessamine County Public Library employee. Sharon Cook, a library employee, was “simply appalled that a child could find a book that contained so many outright visually obscene graphics . . . where she worked”.[xix] After a failed attempt to have the book removed from the system, Cook, in an attempt to keep the book from a young reader that had placed a hold on the item, “removed the book from circulation. She checked it out over and over and over with her library card.”[xx] Cook later found a cohort in fellow employee Beth Boisvert; the two decided that Cook would “remove the hold, thus disallowing the child – or the child’s parents – ever to see the book.”[xxi] Both Cook and Boisvert were fired.
After a very public debate regarding censorship, pornography, and community standards, the book was recataloged and relocated “along with other graphic novels with mature themes, to the adult section of the library.”[xxii]
Libraries will undoubtedly continue to face challenges as described above. Started in 2011, the Kentucky Public Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, is devoted to mitigating such challenges, and preserving First Amendment freedoms for libraries, their staffs, and patronages across the state.