Notebook: Local Control (Part II)
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
AUSTIN, TX - APRIL 20: Vandegrift High School Banned Book Club members Angela Gutierrez, 16, Jaea Rivera, 15, and Isabela Rotondara, 16, (left to right) chat during their book club meeting in the schools library in Austin, Texas on April 20, 2022. (Photo by Montinique Monroe for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Read Part I of this post here
In his book The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America, Ellis Cose asks whether the pure version of arguments for free speech—that “good” speech always wins out over “bad” speech, and therefore more speech is better—really works. Cose argues that those with power and influence have always had more access to speech, and in recent years, with the Citizen’s United decision and the amplifications of social media, the discrepancy has become more pronounced. A tension was visible in the library book hearing over this issue: historically, as in banned book author Ruby Bridges’ own case, civil rights have advanced from the federal level, supporting an understanding of fundamental American rights on behalf of people who, at the local level, may be in the minority. Libraries’ challenge-review mechanisms ultimately allow the librarian (or, usually, a committee formed to consider the issue) to overrule a complaining parent if having Ruby Bridges’ book serves the First Amendment rights of a minority of the library’s readership. Parents (citizens, taxpayers) do have some standing in shaping school policy, but, as in any public institution, that authority is curtailed where it impinges the rights of others. (There is a solid Supreme Court precedent, in Island Trees School District v. Pico, for First Amendment rights prevailing in school.)
As Cose points out, the First Amendment, like the Second, has never been absolute. A federal protection of speech trumping state censorship was not even established until Gitlow v. New York in 1925. The exemption for the language of insurrection and espionage has been used to suppress dissenting speech from day one, most egregiously in shielding the slaveholding South from any discussion of abolitionism. The anti-vice Comstock Laws allowed the postal service to prohibit transmission of hundreds of works of literature, from Canterbury Tales to James Joyce. As those complaining of bias on social media have never quite grasped, the First Amendment guards against government intervention: publishers making editorial decisions is not censorship. The work of identifying and honoring protected speech will never be final or decided by fiat; it is part of the long slow work of democracy.
Another point where my own experience dovetailed in an uncomfortable way with the advocacy on display around book-challenges came forward in the hearing. Somewhat bizarrely, the committee decided to tether a discussion of challenges to library books to disputes around free expression on college campuses. Jonathan Pidluzny of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni brought testimony describing conservative university students being marginalized and campus protests of conservative speakers. Hence those defending “free speech” in college advocated curtailing it in elementary school. I think the point may have been to accuse liberals of hypocrisy, but it wasn’t clear what the underlying standard was supposed to be. (Jonathan Pidluzny himself said during questioning that he and Jessica Berg, an English teacher appearing on the panel from Loudon County, Virginia, to object to the suppression of school library books, found themselves in agreement.) Anyway, I wondered about the free speech rights of the protesters. They would argue that they were engaged in acts of civil disobedience, rather than constraints on speech, as they were not government entities. The committee’s chairman, Representative Jamie Raskin, denounced such protests, but did not engage with the question, at what level of civic distress is a citizen entitled to engage in civil disobedience, whether at a college lecture or a local school board meeting. A student of mine once made a persuasive case for students’ right to protest a graduation speaker. Cose argues that the disputes around speech in the university are precisely the sorts of in-depth, balancing considerations that should be happening in society as a whole, rather than absolutist appeals to an ideal of free speech that has never been the reality.
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Under what circumstances one person’s voice, or a small number of people, has disproportionate influence on what is read or heard has a weird inverted meaning when it comes to social media. It is the mass of people, acting in the aggregate, that moves social media’s algorithms, and in that way (as the early idealists of the internet presumed) the mechanism is democratic. But as the algorithms draw on impulses even we don’t know we are manifesting, through our tiny decisions to linger over a violent image or click on an inflammatory statement, it draws us out at our worst, just as early opponents of democracies feared demagogues would do. Harvesting these impulses for commercial or electoral advantage has become big business. Elon Musk made waves last month in his bid to buy the social media giant Twitter and make it a haven for free speech by removing even the nascent moderation measures that have been slowly introduced as the dangers of engagement-based algorithmic dissemination became more clear. Meanwhile, Meta (formerly Facebook) COO Sheryl Sandberg, who had been for most of Facebook’s life the person charged with the human, as opposed to technological, side the nearly ungovernable behemoth, resigned, leaving her boss Mark Zuckerberg, who has never been understood as having much of a grasp on the social implications of his creation, squarely at the helm. Last month saw further diminution of Facebook’s self-appointed fig-leaf “Oversight Board,” created with fanfare to adjudicate Facebook’s moderation decisions. What does it mean, as we go into the midterm elections of 2022 and the nascent presidential election of 2024, after years of wrestling with the consequences of algorithmic distribution, that we have no clear meaningful leadership vision about content moderation on these dominant platforms? Musk and Zuckerberg have some of the least nuanced understandings of free speech on public record.
How are books different from social media? They are not anonymous. They are tied to makers who stand behind them. They are the product of long, deliberate work, made with the intent to endure and withstand recorded criticism. Journalism, once housed, like books, in the physical, serves us so long as it manages to hold likewise to these intentions.
There was a narrative after the elections of fall 2021 that parents energized by “culture war” school issues like library book bans and (a few months before that) the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” and (a few months before that) masks and remote learning in schools had been decisive. There was a counternarrative that parent mobilization had been important, but that actually the “culture war” issues were less salient than families’ exhaustion by covid and the clear harms that it had done their kids, and the extreme distress and confusion into which it had thrown their schools. In the library debates, many librarians and teachers have said that the underlying thread, which was causing many of them the most anxiety, leading a number to leave the profession, was that covid had broken the trust that parents previously had for teachers and administrators. (In my school-politics days it used to be said that most people think “schools,” like, say, “senators,” are bad, though they think their school, like their senator, is good. No more, perhaps.) How much we can allow democracy to serve us, and how much we have to manage it, is ultimately a matter of trust. In Finland and Japan people don’t seem to think they need guns. Perhaps it is because books can help broaden the reach of our trust that they seem so powerful, and dangerous.
Ann Kjellberg is the founder and editor of Book Post.
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