Archive for the ‘Controversial Positions’ Category

“Librarians” and “Pornography”

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Carrieif@aol.com has drawn to the attention of the Intellectual Freedom Round Table listserv to the story Librarians Won’t Give Child ‘Porn’ Book on the web site for WTVQ-TV in Lexington, KY. The story involves two “librarians” at the Jessamine Public Library who were dismissed last month for refusing to give a book they considered pornographic to an 11year old girl. The book was one of the volumes of Alan Moore’s series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Alan Moore is a graphic novelist of high repute and the author of such works as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell. He writes graphic novels for an adult audience. Indeed, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s ideal reader would be an adult with an encyclopedic knowledge of popular literature from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Moore’s vision of the world is bleak and that translates into stories that can be violent and often entail sexual violence. I have a friend–a fellow librarian–who is a graphic novel enthusiast, but who has quit reading Moore because he objects to the frequent occurrence of rape in his works.

That being said, the two “librarians” did not follow the policy of the Jessamine Public Library that “the responsibilities of the child’s reading must lie with the parents and not the Library.” Instead, they chose to remove the book from a hold shelf so it could not be picked up by the 11 year old girl. The Jessamine Public Library is to be applauded for its stand on parental responsibility. The two “librarians” deserved reproach for their decision.

Now, if you go to the story on the WTVQ-TV web site you’ll see that many of the comments on the story are by librarians who are quick to point out that the two staff members probably did not have masters degrees in library science and hence were not really librarians. Of course, from the point of view of anyone not employed in a library or a library school, they were librarians. Everyone in the library except the cleaning staff is a librarian.

The assumption behind this careful restriction of the title is a belief that true librarians would not have made the same error. I also think that the readers of the ACRL Intellectual Freedom blog might assume the academic librarians would certainly not make such an error. I disagree. I think all librarians (both in the strict and loose definitions of the title) at all levels of librarianship need to be reminded of our commitments to intellectual freedom and that the reminders should be repeated frequently.

In 1992, when Madonna published her book SEX, I remember the book on the approval plan shelves. We all, of course, gave it a look. If you have never seen it, you have missed nothing. It is a silly attempt to shock. The text is trite and the photos are a stale imitation of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and other artists who truly explored the limits of sexual depiction. What has always stuck in my mind about the book is not any of its pictures or text, but a note a librarian left on the book:  “Please please don’t buy this trash for the collection.” The note was left by a librarian I deeply respect, but who had a strong personal reaction to the work. The sociology selector who was responsible for collecting materials on sexual expression and erotica ended up having a long talk with the concerned librarian. They discussed the role such a work would play in the collection and its likely importance as an artifact of the period and came to an agreement that it was appropriate for the library. In fact, two copies of SEX were ultimately purchased: one for a special collection on human sexuality and the other for the circulating collection (albeit the volume was kept in the closed stacks so it would survive intact and could be circulated).

All librarians reach these points in building collections whether our reaction is to sexual content or violence or hatred or gross human stupidity. We all, therefore, require reminders of our principles so reason will keep our feelings in check, so we will do the job of protecting intellectual freedom.

—Paul Beavers

The Way to Address Controversy

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

On September 9, I contributed a posting on the controversy over the Taylor and Francis Groups refusal to publish a special issue of The Journal of Homosexuality. I called their treatments of the scholars involved shameful. I think Robert Wright’s handling of a controversy at Bloggingheads.tv stands in marked contrast to what we saw from Taylor and Francis.

Bloggingheads.tv is a video blog offering eight to nine split-screen dialogs (called diavlogs) each week between journalists, scholars, scientists, and others in the know. The editor in chief, Robert Wright, and his associates do an outstanding job of finding challenging pairings representing wide ranges of opinions and beliefs.

Most of the diavlogs concern politics and political punditry, but not all. Percontations offers weekly diavlogs encompassing philosophy and psychology, and Science Saturdays offers diavlogs on topics ranging from cosmology to linguistics, from chasing lightening to string theory.

Science Saturdays has been very successful in drawing both practicing scientists and accomplished science journalists. The participants clearly see their role as communicating the nature of science and scientific investigations as well as explicating the specifics of recent research.

All this merits mention on our Intellectual Freedom blog because of a recent controversy that arose when Paul Nelson, a young earth creationist, and Michael Behe, an advocate for intelligent design, were invited to participate in diavlogs.

To say the least, neither the viewers of Bloggingheads.tv nor the regular contributors to Science Saturday were pleased. Discussions of evolutionary theory and its place in K-12 science education are frequent on Science Saturdays. Giving a place at the table to proponents of pseudo-science felt like as a slap in the face to many. Two of the contributors to Science Saturday–Sean Carroll and Carl Zimmer–have publicly disassociated themselves from Bloggingheads.tv and have vowed never to participate again.

The manner in which Robert Wright handled the controversy stands in marked contrast to how the Taylor and Francis Groups treated Beert Verstraete and his associates.  They were, you’ll remember, simply told that the publisher had decided not to proceed. No explanation for the decision was offered. The material was handled as though it had simply come in over the transom and not as an issue that the editors had been encouraged to compile. Verstraete was left feeling that they had deceived him, getting him to withdraw Bruce Rind’s article from an earlier issue while feigning interest in later addressing Rind’s research on “sexual intimacy between adult and adolescent males”.

Robert Wright, in contrast, came forward and offered his explanation in a Science Saturday diavlog called Mistakes were Made. Wright makes quite clear that he takes responsibilities for any mistakes. He is also clear about what he is and is not willing to do to address the controversy.  On the page containing his diavlog, he also provides links to Sean Carroll, Carl Zimmer, and other contributors’ statements as well as to the two diavlogs in question. Everyone gets to have their say. Nothing is suppressed.

Wright also articulates his policies on how such controversial topics will be handled in the future without yielding to pressure to ban such representatives of pseudo-science from Bloggingheads.tv. In fact, Wright explains that such people will appear when the context is appropriate. Intelligent design advocates and creationists (of either the young or old earth varieties) had not been invited in the past because they need to be paired with scientists who can discuss the foundations of evolutionary theory in a manner that is both accessible and absolutely solid. Bloggingheads.tv does after all want to have viewers and conveying the details that support evolutionary theory might well result in a diavlog that is more treatise than discussion. A diavlog that will be watched by no one benefits no one.

Wright also explained that both the controversial diavlogs were going to remain available on Bloggingheads.tv. After asking the participants to expend the efforts to record their discussions–discussions that were precisely on the topics they were asked to address–he wasn’t about to throw their work away. The controversy concerning the piece with Michael Behe broke out when Wright was on a meditation retreat and incommunicado. During this period, Behe’s interlocutor asked that the diavlog be taken down. The moment Wright returned he had that the diavlog restored to the web site; a request from one of the participants was not sufficient to have the piece suppressed.

Have a listen to the diavlog or a look at the supporting materials. I particularly recommend the piece by John Horgan.

–Paul Beavers

Shameful Treatment of Scholars

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

A number of you will by now be familiar with this affair.  This is my personal take on the situation.

Dr. Beert Verstraete and Dr. John De Cecco guest-edited what was to have been a special issue of The Journal of Homosexuality. The issue addressed the theme of “Sexual Intimacy between Adult and Adolescent Males” and was built around a revised version of a paper by Dr. Bruce Rind of Temple University.  This paper was originally to have been published as part of an earlier special issue of The Journal of Homosexuality. Verstraete and De Cecco asked Rind to expand that paper and enlisted other scholars to contribute papers critiquing and reacting to Dr. Rind. They did so on the specific suggestion of Haworth Press, the publisher of the journal.

The issue of The Journal of Homosexuality in which the Rind paper was originally to have appeared addressed the theme of “Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West.” Beert Verstraete was one of the editors.  Rind’s research in pederasty has long been controversial and his contribution of an article, “Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” quickly became a cause célèbre in WorldNetDaily, a conservative news service. Haworth Press reacted to this by tacitly canceling the issue.  The academic community–including librarians–brought pressure to bear on Haworth, and they ultimately agreed to publish the issue without Bruce Rind’s paper.

Dr. Verstraete and the other editors of that issue were, however, encouraged to make Rind’s paper the center piece of a subsequent thematic issue. Indeed, John De Cecco, who was then the General Editor of the Journal of Homosexuality, agreed to edit the volume with Dr. Verstraete.  Though neither man seems to have realized it at the time, they were not promised publication. Once the manuscript was submitted, the Taylor and Francis Group (who had purchased Haworth Press in the intervening months) reviewed it and “decided not to proceed.” There was no hint that it contained inferior scholarship or that it had deviated from the original suggestion for the issue. Dr. Verstraete’s willingness to compromise on the earlier issue of the journal had led him to place faith in mere suggestions. What had been a source of anxiety to the publishers in 2005 was completely out of the question in 2009.

This is yet another instance of publishers that refuse to distinguish between scholarship that addresses controversial issues and those issues themselves. Dr. Rind’s scholarship on pederasty (or “intergenerational sex” or whatever terminology one might choose) addresses issues about which most of us have strong feelings and moral convictions. I have no reason to believe that I would agree with Dr. Rind’s conclusions. Indeed, I might even be angered by what I’d read. But that’s not to say Dr. Rind should be prohibited from researching this subject or publishing his findings. If such academic freedom is not available, research cannot advance on controversial issues. The freedom of scholars to take positions and draw conclusions with which others disagree–the freedom to challenge established points of view and our settled moral convictions–is essential.  Such challenges strengthen arguments and, yes, on occasions cause the modification and growth of settled points of view and convictions.

Of course, for-profit publishers have their eyes on the bottom line and like so many corporations are leery of controversy, especially when it touches upon hot button issues like pederasty. They are also adept at drawing fine distinctions between legally binding agreements and persuasive suggestions that could perhaps just conceivably be misconstrued. But–in my personal opinion–it is shameful thing to waste the efforts of so many scholars with such a ploy. I am also deeply concerned when a publisher of academic journals proves so lacking in courage and unwilling to stand on principle.

—Paul Beavers

FERPA, Student Privacy, and Parental Rights

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. It applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.

“Education records” can cover grades as well as health and behavioral records. Interpretation of the law can differ by institution, but FERPA is increasingly being painted as a law that pits “students’ right to privacy against what some parents deem as their right to know.”

One catalyst for the discussion has been 19-year old Jason Wren’s presumably alcohol-related death. Wren had a disciplinary history with Kansas State University, but his parents had no warning of his behavior until after his death.

Does an individual have less of a right to privacy by default of being a college student? Where does the right to privacy interfere with an institution’s goal to keep its students safe?

- X. Avalos

Academic Freedom at College of DuPage

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

College Freedom has a recent post about a proposed policy change at College of DuPage. Last Fall the college’s Board of Trustees shared a draft of changes that included language taken from David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights. The Faculty Association protested and the Board made some changes.

The Illinois AAUP has responded in detail to the new draft. Some of the remaining concern is over vague terms such as “demeaning behavior” and “ethical image” that are left undefined and thus open to abuse. The policy also grants the campus President the authority limit the place, content, and timing of speakers. Perhaps the most problematic section states “No person shall be required to listen to a speaker or participate in a program that he/she finds objectionable.” This removes faculty from the traditional role of determining curriculum and course content. The Illinois AAUP may overstate their case here and there in the response, but this last item is truly troubling.

- Dan Lee

Open Access Limits Intellectual Freedom

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

I just ran across an editorial, Preserving Intellectual Freedom in Clinical Medicine, from Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics that was posted last October. Giovanni A. Fava raises a number of issues in the piece, some of which are quite familiar to us, such as the role of corporate interests in medical research. He cites one study that found that of 74 FDA registered trials of antidepressants, 37 of 38 trials with positive results were published, but only 3 of the 36 trials with negative results saw the light of day.

There has been much publicity of the way drug companies consciously and unconsciously exert influence over research and publication. What made this editorial stand out was his claim that open access publishing also can negatively impact intellectual freedom in the life sciences. As more and more journals move to an author pays open access model, independent researchers who don’t have the leverage of large grants to help pay these fees are forced to publish in journals whose content becomes harder to find in our current state of information glut.

Interesting claim. Anyone?

– Dan Lee

Israel, Palestine, and Academic Freedom at Columbia University

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Issues in the Middle East are once again affecting the academic environment at Columbia University. Columbia and Barnard faculty have written an open letter to the University’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, asking him to speak out in favor of academic freedom for Palestinians. President Bollinger has formerly been the target of complaints alleging that under his watch, the University allowed anti-Semitism and intimidation in its Middle East studies classes. He has also previously defended the University against David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights, and gained some notoriety for inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia.

- X. Avalos