Speaking Out!
Voices in Celebration of Intellectual Freedom

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Historians believe this sentence was first used by S. G. Tallentyre (AKA E. Beatrice Hall) in quoting a letter written by Voltaire. Norbert Guterman suggests that the quotation may be a paraphrase of a line in a letter from Voltaire to M. le Riche: Monsieur l’abbe, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Although this quotation may not be Voltaire’s exact words, the statement nevertheless embodies intellectual freedom and expresses an ideal that more than any other has informed my career as a librarian. In the United States of America, we have agreed to disagree. The right to free expression is more important in this country than anything that is being expressed.

When I became editor of American Libraries in 1995, I wholeheartedly embraced the American Library Association’s governing policies for the magazine. They state that it must be “scrupulously and faithfully open to expression of all viewpoints.” I reject the idea that objective of any news medium is to hand down the word from on high; rather it should serve as a forum in which every participant is entitled to speak his or her own mind.

I have witnessed this principle at work in libraries. I have been there when librarians defended books and films that I am quite certain they personally found repugnant. In their resolute way, these librarians always seemed to me the truest champions of democracy. We must recognize that here is an enormous difference between what people think and say and what they do. As Americans, we are entitled to think and express what we wish within the rule of law. As librarians, we must uphold the belief that the best antidote to a bad idea is another idea, to a hateful book another book.

Censorship knows no better champions than people who believe they alone have the right answer. The natural next step for many, it seems, is to try to silence those who disagree. This pressure can come from anywhere in the political spectrum. What zealots often fail to comprehend is that libraries exist to preserve the record of what has happened in the world. Denial–of the horrors of American slavery, of the Holocaust, of atrocities in the Balkans, of the lies of communism–depends on the obliteration of the record. Those who would know the truth must be able to see for themselves in libraries and archives examples of the hatred and lies that have been held up as truth, and we must trust that a free and educated people will see these phenomena for what they are.

I want to know that somewhere, in some library, I will always be able to find examples of the worst racist, homophobic, and sexist material. In time, these materials become their own worst enemies; they stand as indisputable evidence of what the objects of their hatred endured.

But “defend to the death”? Isn’t that just too extreme? I am not suggesting that librarians should be prepared to die so that neo-Nazis can spread hate speech, but I do believe that once examples of their hatred have been cataloged and preserved in the appropriate collections, no one is entitled to remove them. A world that suppresses unpopular views, no matter how repellent, is a world that American librarians cannot inhabit.

Originally published in Speaking Out: Voices in Celebration of Intellectual Freedom, edited by Ann K. Symons and Sally Gardner Reed, American Library Association, 1999.

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