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Free libraries essential to a country’s freedom

OPINION by Mildred "Millie" Gore Lancaster, guest column | March 19, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

I grew up in libraries. By second grade, I was checking out books from the public library, books about dogs and horses, the ancient Spartans and Native American tribes. Books about Greek and Roman mythology. Books about Christianity. Biographies of Sequoia, Helen Keller, Abraham Lincoln. I stayed up all night reading Anne Frank. I realized that librarians didn't have time to read books themselves because they were so busy helping patrons find the books they wanted to read.

In high school, the public library became the place my band friends and I went on Tuesday nights to work on our term papers. My senior paper was on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) because we lived beside an Air Force base, and my father said we would go out in the first wave if Khrushchev attacked the U.S. I wanted to understand how (and whether) we could defend ourselves. I realized that librarians knew how to find source material that I never knew existed. If I didn't have a book they deemed critical to my research, they borrowed it for me to use.

I can't imagine my life without free public libraries. Librarians are my heroes. I am confounded by the hubris of non-librarians who think they know more about what should be housed on library shelves than professional librarians know.

The notion of government censorship that takes the control of libraries away from professional librarians gives me nightmares.

I read "Fahrenheit 451" in high school and thought government censorship only existed in that fictive society, in Nazi Germany, and in the USSR. Certainly not in the America that I love.

My father was a passionate anti-Communist and anti-fascist, and he had told me that Communist and fascist governments not only suppress books, but that those governments re-write history (lie) to suit their ends. I assumed that citizens of the United States would always be protected by the First Amendment to read anything they chose to read. I assumed that our federal and local governments would always protect libraries as places citizens could access any books they chose.

Then, in 1997, I discovered that one charismatic preacher in Wichita Falls, Texas could convince the good citizens in his congregation that their First Amendment Freedom of Religion superseded other citizens' First Amendment Freedom of Speech. Freedom of Speech includes the right to read whatever one chooses. Even if other people disapprove. Especially if other people disapprove.

Public libraries are a place where books on all subjects are freely available to all people. But that charismatic preacher convinced many in his congregation that they were called by God to force the city commission to pass a censorship bill. This bill, the Altman Amendment, allowed the pastor's followers to have books removed from the children's section of the public library if they conflicted with the followers' religious beliefs, beliefs he had carefully crafted.

The bill forced librarians to remove challenged books immediately from the children's library and shelve them in the adult sexuality section. Children could not access the books unless they already knew that the books existed and were brave enough to go to the adult sexuality section to look for them. Children's books.

I know my neighbors who worked to pass and enforce the Altman Amendment had good hearts. I know they passionately believed that books that conflicted with their religious beliefs harmed little children.

While people are protected by the Bill of Rights from birth, our culture has adopted the tradition that parents have the right to raise their children by the religious values they hold dear. As part of that tradition, our culture allows parents to control what their children read.

Therefore, I said to my neighbors, "Practice your faith and raise your children as you think best. But your Freedom of Religion cannot interfere with other people's Freedom of Speech. Freedom of Speech protects the public library as a place where all citizens, including children, can access books that professional library staff have selected as appropriate. You don't have the right to control what other people's children can access at the public library."

Because we're not living in George Orwell's fictional nation of Oceania in 1984 where Big Brother incinerated books in the Memory Hole. We're not living in Germany in 1933 where Hitler and his Nazis burned books in bonfires throughout the land. We're not living in Russia today where media outlets are state-controlled and dissenters mysteriously fall out of windows to their deaths. We're living in America in 2023, protected by the Bill of Rights since 1791.

And for that, I thank God.

Mildred "Millie" Gore Lancaster, Ed. D., is a Professor Emerita, Hardin Distinguished Professor, and Gordon T. and Ellen West Distinguished Professor, Midwestern State University.

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