“Je Suis Charlie” and Our Commitment to Intellectual Freedom

The JCPL editorial board strongly condemns the attacks on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and the murders of twelve individuals. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of the families touched by the tragedy. We also see in this public moment of outrage and public support for free speech an opportunity to confront the challenge inherent in supporting intellectual freedom and the underscore the responsibility of librarians to engage that challenge.

Like all freedoms, free speech is not entirely free. It is a constant struggle within societal tides, ebbing and flowing on the basis of cultural mores, political idealism, and community identity. It involves the active defense of speech that is easy to support as well as speech that is politically controversial or found by some to be ugly, depraved, hateful, ignorant, or offensive. It trusts that we can escape the gravity of our built-in biases and preferences to consider discordant ideas and concepts that challenge us while knowing that this trust is no simple matter.

Many of the world leaders who marched in Paris to declare that ils sommes Charlie repress speech in their own countries. Others who were quick to condemn the violent attack in the name of free speech did not consider that up to forty percent of young residents of les banlieues, the areas where the children of North African immigrants have grown up, are unemployed and have few opportunities. Charlie Hebdo’s anti-religious satire was often aimed at an economically disadvantaged population that was long told that in a secular republic they can be French or they can be Muslims, but they cannot be both, at least not in the public sphere. It is these complexities which supporters of free speech must consider when supporting intellectual freedom.

Being willing to understand context is quite different than the over-cautious analysis made by Yale University Press when they declined to include in a book about Danish political cartoons that sparked a violent backlash the images that were, in fact, the subject of the book. They omitted the images not because they were offensive to some, but because they feared reprisals. As librarians we need to be sensitive to and acknowledge the power of words and images to offend while also defending free expression without fear.

Freedom of expression is a librarian ideal, but for many it remains an abstraction. The pressures of patrons, budget, and time erode that ideal into one in which controversial library material becomes an investment calculation: do I have the energy to fight for this item or this policy? The easier path is not to buy the book, not to subscribe to the magazine, not to fight for unrestricted internet access, not to let a group use a room, not to oppose a challenge, and render ourselves inert in the face of a potential confrontation. We may say that privacy is a cornerstone of freedom of thought, yet trade it for a favorable license or assume it’s non-negotiable and and console ourselves that patrons don’t really don’t care about privacy anymore.

It is the efficient and uncomplicated solution that will get the library to the next day or through the next budget meeting, but not with our ideals of intellectual freedom intact. Our principles are diminished not just by the sweeping statements from the political or religious pulpit, but by thousands of small choices good librarians make. We are a profession of great principles, but many balk when it comes to practice. These ideals are complicated but are worthy of the fight, even at a high cost.

The Charlie Hebdo attack roused millions to pour into the streets and onto social media in solidarity. But the intellectual freedom challenges we face in our libraries daily are less dramatic. For all we do to espouse the cause of intellectual freedom when it is popular to do so, we cannot abandon it in our own communities and in our daily practices. We should instead provide spaces for our communities to engage the complexity, think about multiple perspectives, and grapple with the implications of intellectual freedom, even when it’s not so simple.

We call upon all librarians, library staff, and library advocates to take intellectual freedom to heart and make choices that preserve and advance free speech in their communities. This puts us on a path of painful choices and difficult confrontations, but it is the right path. Free expression is a cornerstone of a free and just society; its importance cannot be understated in a world that contains oppression, ignorance, bigotry, and loss of privacy. The consequences of inaction leave us all diminished, an erosion of the great ideals of knowledge and pluralism that have drawn generations into the librarian profession.

These freedoms are not just challenged by bullets or bombs, but by the times we fail to let it guide the practical choices we make as librarians every day. The fronts for these causes are not simply in distant lands or at the site of terrorist attacks, but on our shelves and in our license agreements. Our commitment to intellectual freedom must be more than an abstraction, more than the gesture of an annual Banned Books Week display.

It is imperative that librarians embrace this challenge for the people who long for it in their lives, for the well being of knowledge as a basis of enlightenment and understanding, and for the future of humanity.

Nous sommes la liberté intellectuelle