Free people read freely; Dzhokhar doesn’t matter.

by on July 18th, 2013

By now many of us have seen the cover of the new issue of Rolling Stone magazine. It features a “selfie” photograph of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, an alleged perpetrator of the recent Boston Marathon bombings. Commenters on social media have described the magazine as giving Tsarnaev a rock star treatment. The photo could just as easily be of Julian Casablancas or even Jim Morrison. Just as I would guess Rolling Stone hoped, it’s provoking strong reactions in people which include calling the cover “shameful,” “disgusting,” and “tasteless.” Several retailers have opted not to sell or display the issue, notably CVS, Walgreens, and more locally, Hy-Vee.

This post isn’t meant to be a “Staff Picks” in the regular sense. I probably won’t personally read the article in Rolling Stone about Tsarnaev and how his life turned tragic. I’d rather give time and credence to the victims of the bombing and many other tragedies which go unnoticed by the media, or volunteering in my community in some way. I would, however, defend unconditionally the rights of every patron to have access to this material.

According to the Library Bill of Rights, (which Iowa City Public Library has adopted as policy) libraries have a responsibility to provide information and enlightenment, and based on this core belief, we attempt to challenge censorship. The businesses that are not selling this issue of Rolling Stone are private entities and as such are well within their rights to stock whatever they’d like on their shelves. I believe that as a library we have a greater responsibility to our patrons that compels us to make materials available even if a person or group may find them objectionable. Iowa City Public Library does not censor materials based on these objections and as such, this magazine is available as part of our collection.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had controversial material on our shelves. A recent cover of Newsweek that depicted protestors under a headline “Muslim Rage” raised some eyebrows. A trend in young adult books (especially those marketed to young girls) with material that many would deem inappropriate has brought up questions. The novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” always seems to come up in these conversations.

Libraries have historically been known for defending intellectual freedom and privacy issues. The American Library Association holds an annual event called “Banned Books Week” in which libraries nationwide celebrate the freedom to read materials that have been banned or challenged. Many are surprised to hear popular titles like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Hunger Games,” and “Brave New World” on the list of top banned or challenged materials.

These issues are certainly not limited to books. Recent revelations about the NSA and FBI have sparked debates about personal privacy, surveillance, and the transparency of information in the United States. Many library employees believe their role as champions of intellectual freedom is becoming more critically important as time passes and newer technologies are adopted. American Library Association policies “affirm that confidentiality is crucial to freedom of inquiry.” They also “affirm an ethical imperative to provide unrestricted access to information and to guard against impediments to open inquiries.” Protecting patron confidentiality is a critical part of library culture. Libraries are committed to supporting free speech and open access to information.

Here at Iowa City Public Library, we host the annual Carol Spaziani Intellectual Freedom Festival where we conduct panel discussions and show films related to these issues. Truthfully, attendance has been low in recent years. It is my sincere hope that with privacy, censorship, and access to information on peoples’ minds, we might begin a dialogue locally and increase participation. This year’s schedule will be released soon, but previous years’ events have included: a discussion of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its impact on intellectual freedom, lectures on censorship, and a screening of the documentary “Barbershop Punk” which talks about internet service providers and access to information. I hope that if you have questions or concerns about these issues you will attend and participate this September.

One Response to “Free people read freely; Dzhokhar doesn’t matter.”

  1. Maeve says:

    Would anyone have paid any attention to the story on the alleged bomber if Tsarnaev’s photo hadn’t been on the cover of the Rolling Stone? Maybe, but probably not. Are those who are outraged by the cover photo equally upset by the article? They probably haven’t read it. The visual image has so much power, so much that it becomes the story and the story it is illustrating, while not ignored,is pushed aside.

    For another take on the cover photo and the Rolling Stone article, here is a link to Ian Crouch’e posting in the New Yorker’s site.

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