The problem of neutrality and intellectual freedom
The case of libraries
in The free speech wars
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‘Intellectual freedom’ is considered one of the core values of librarianship, and is the equivalent of free speech/free expression in other domains. However, intellectual freedom has always been equated with the professional ‘neutrality’ of libraries, and while there has always been a tension in the profession between intellectual freedom and social responsibility, the recent increase in politicisation of free speech has made the purported neutrality of libraries and intellectual freedom a site of political and cultural debate. In 2018 the American Library Association approved changes to an interpretation of its room-booking policy to explicitly allow hate groups to use public library spaces, setting off a major debate within librarianship over freedom of speech and no-platforming. The debate essentially revolved around hate groups gaining legitimacy or credibility by using public library spaces to proclaim their message, the question of supporting hate groups’ rights over the rights of users and staff who may feel targeted by hate speech, and the question of how the public library can or should adjudicate between competing rights. The language change was eventually reversed, but this has only postponed a resolution of the underlying contradictions within the library profession. This chapter begins by laying out the basic positions on the room-booking policy, but then broadens out to situate ‘intellectual freedom’ within librarianship’s hegemonic liberalism and offer a radical alternative vision for libraries in today’s highly polarised political culture. It then suggests that libraries need to abandon a pretence of neutrality and opt instead for a commitment to social justice. This commitment would enable libraries to escape from the paradox which a commitment to an abstract, neutral, intellectual freedom has placed them in.

The free speech wars

How did we get here and why does it matter?


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