Libraries can’t afford to welcome hate

July 13, 2018

Alessandra Seiter, a library science student in Boston, makes the case that libraries and librarians can’t be neutral when it comes to far-right organizations.

THE AMERICAN Library Association (ALA) — the oldest and largest library association in the world — has amended its interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights regarding meeting rooms to explicitly defend the right of hate groups to use such library spaces.

The ALA made this decision at its annual meeting in late June on the basis of free speech arguments, asserting that “a publicly funded library is not obligated to provide meeting room space to the public, but if it chooses to do so, it cannot discriminate or deny access based upon the viewpoint of speakers or the content of their speech. This encompasses religious, political and hate speech.”

This amendment comes at a time when far-right, fascist, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups in the U.S. have been emboldened by Donald Trump and his racist administration. Not only have right-wingers mobilized more frequently in public demonstration, but they have carried out a string of racist murders and assaults — most notoriously, the murder of Heather Heyer last August in Charlottesville, Virginia.

One of the hundreds of events in solidarity with Charlottesville in Madison, Wisconsin

In Boston alone, we in the International Socialist Organization (ISO), alongside allies committed to fighting the far right, have had to mobilize against neo-Nazi rallies on five occasions in the past year.

Beyond the U.S., the fascist movement is growing as well — most recently with thousands of fascists marching through London behind far-right English Defense League leader Tommy Robinson.

As a revolutionary socialist and student of library science, I deeply believe in the power of libraries to play an important role in the mobilization and organization of the working class. Libraries as institutions and individual librarians have a long history of adding their voices to struggles against oppression, in solidarity with the broader community.

For example, township libraries in South Africa’s Cape Flats played an active role in the struggle against apartheid in the 1980s. They facilitated meetings, covert actions and political education to assist the popular movements.

Three decades later, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library (FMLP) in Ferguson, Missouri, served a similar purpose following the police murder of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown.

The FMLP stayed open during the weeks-long protests and focused its services on meeting the community’s immediate needs. These services included providing space for students when fall school openings were delayed, helping local businesses to apply for government aid, and offering materials on civil rights and mental health services to facilitate emotional healing.

LIBRARIES ARE not neutral entities — a topic being hotly debated within the profession, such as at ALA’s midwinter conference in Denver in February. What librarians say and do has profound political, social and economic implications for the communities in which we work and the society in which we live.

Taking a “neutral” stance on hate groups not only denies this reality, but plays directly into fabricating the mask of “free speech” donned by far right groups to justify their violent hate and spread their genocidal views. The far right aims at far more than speech — they want to kill anyone who threatens their conceptions of the “purity of the white race.”

By pledging to provide meeting space to hate groups, the ALA has lowered itself to Trump’s level when he asserted — to widespread condemnation — after Charlottesville that there were “good people on both sides.”

This makes the ALA no better than educational institutions that spend handsome sums of money allowing incendiary figures to come to campus — and then decry and punish left-wing protesters for exercising their own right to free speech against these merchants of hate.

One of the ALA’s fundamental principles is “intellectual freedom,” which is currently defined as a “neutral, objective” commitment to ensuring the First Amendment-based rights of “library users to read, seek information and speak freely.”

But far from being a neutral principle, the notion of “intellectual freedom” has a clear political history.

Since the anti-communist witch hunts of the late 1940s and 1950s, libraries have mobilized the concept of “intellectual freedom” to defend themselves from being targeted by the Red Scare, using the rationale that by providing “all points of view,” libraries could safeguard themselves against such accusations.

“All points of view,” though, often did not include those targeted by McCarthyism, as demonstrated through the Library of Congress’ firing of queer people and anyone with “communist sensibilities.”

But it’s critical to remember that the struggle over “intellectual freedom” came out of the period leading up to Second World War, when U.S. librarians saw it as a personal and professional duty to take a clear political stance against Hitler’s dictatorship and in support of anti-authoritarian values.

“Intellectual freedom” thus arose as a way for librarians to defend their involvement in efforts to oppose fascism. Today, the ALA would do well to remember not only this principle is inherently political, but that it has anti-fascist and anti-Nazi roots.

VARIOUS WELL-MEANING librarians have argued to me that by not defending the right of hate groups to use library spaces, left-wing social and political organizations face the threat of being targeted and excluded, because we are often the ones deemed “hateful” by the capitalist state.

I’m sympathetic to this argument, as calls for state-sponsored institutions to restrict or ban speech are often used to curtail organizing by left-wing groups. After all, we are the ones who fight against the injustices of society — in the face of opposition from the wealthy and powerful, who portray us, not themselves, as the threat to civil liberties.

Think, for example, of the post-9/11 accusations of “terrorism” against Palestinians, which have continued through to today as justification for repressing the nonviolent boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli apartheid state.

But the conclusion shouldn’t be for the ALA to adopt a position of “neutrality,” which allows Nazis to use the framework of free speech in order to justify meeting at libraries.

On the contrary, the far right must be exposed for using “free speech” as a cover for organizing hatred and bigotry in order to carry out violence — with the aim of violating everyone else’s right to free speech. We should not allow the far right to use libraries as launching pads for their efforts to harass people of color, and terrorize and silence those who oppose racism.

Fighting the far right in Trump’s America means uniting against white supremacist neo-Nazis and showing with our far greater numbers that hate is not welcome anywhere. The only way to do this is to outnumber them every single time they organize and to drive them out of our cities and spaces.

Last August in Boston, right after Charottesville, the anti-fascist movement showed the immense power of such organization, with 25,000 people stopping a tiny group of around 20 Nazis. After this success, white supremacist groups around the country canceled rallies and demonstrations.

This is the only way to fight fascist genocide — to stop the far right before it is able to establish its reign of terror.

As the historian Howard Zinn was fond of saying, history is a moving train, and you can’t be neutral on a moving train. You’re either complicit with where it’s going or you’re trying to resist. Libraries and librarians can’t afford to be neutral in a battle with such high stakes.

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