Librarians: When do we stand up for freedom of inquiry?

Libraries often hold and circulate controversial materials, even  materials that one could argue are despicable or dangerous.

Here are some examples from worldcat, a database of combined holdings of thousands of US and international libraries.

That list probably wasn’t actually particularly surprising or shocking to any readers. We know and expect libraries to make controversial material available, and even material advocating positions some or all of us believe are horrid or even dangerous.

Why?  To begin with, because even people who vehemently disagree with a view, might have research needs that require them to consult material expressing that view.   Pretending something doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away, and we often need to research and understand things we might wish didn’t exist.

But, more fundamentally, because we believe…  well, here is a quote from an American Libraries Association resolution:

WHEREAS, the freedom of thought is the most basic of all freedoms and is inextricably linked to freedom of inquiry….

…WHEREAS, ALA reiterates its opposition to any proposal or actions by government that suppresses the free and open exchange of knowledge and information or that intimidates individuals exercising free inquiry;

Libraries are constantly under attack by their funders and by the public for the controversial material they distribute, and we even take pride in it: The ALA uses “banned books week” as a marketing campaign, advertising the fact that we circulate books people have tried to suppress.

The ALA has an official “Freedom to Read” statement:

The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack. Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove or limit access to reading materials, to censor content in schools, to label “controversial” views, to distribute lists of “objectionable” books or authors, and to purge libraries. These actions apparently rise from a view that our national tradition of free expression is no longer valid; that censorship and suppression are needed to counter threats to safety or national security, as well as to avoid the subversion of politics and the corruption of morals. We, as individuals devoted to reading and as librarians and publishers responsible for disseminating ideas, wish to assert the public interest in the preservation of the freedom to read….

We protect the privacy of our patrons because we think “freedom of inquiry can be preserved only in a society in which privacy rights are rigorously protected”; and try to resist “these pressures toward conformity [which] present the danger of limiting the range and variety of inquiry and expression on which our democracy and our culture depend.”  Honored members of our profession have even gone to jail rather than be compelled to testify in court in a way that thought threatened freedom of thought.

There are all sorts of threats to freedom of inquiry that librarians know about, but most of us would never think that, in the U.S., in the 21st century, there is any threat of actually being imprisoned for distributing controversial or subversive literature.  That doesn’t happen in America, not anymore, we think. 

Tarek Mehanna: Imprisoned for distributing subversive material

I thought so too, which is why I was so shocked to learn of the case of Tarek Mehanna.

Let’s get this out of the way: What Mehanna was convicted of was “providing material support to terrorists” under the PATRIOT act.

But what did he actually do?  As the ACLU of Massachusetts wrote in their brief supporting Mehanna’s case (which the court refused to accept into the record):

In each count of the indictment, the government has alleged acts that are protected under the First Amendment. Those acts include: the Defendant watched “jihadi videos” with friends; lent compact discs to people in the Boston area to “create like-minded youth”; discussed with friends his views of suicide bombings, the killing of civilians, and dying on the battlefield for Allah; translated texts that were freely available on the internet; looked for information online about the nineteen 9/11 hijackers; and inquired into how to transfer files from one computer to another and to keep translated files anonymous.

In the FBI’s press release after Mehanna’s sentencing, they express pride in helping to investigate a man who presented such a danger:

…The co-conspirators attempted to radicalize others and inspire each other by, among other things, watching and distributing jihadi videos….

…Mehanna continued his efforts to provide material support by, among other things, translating and posting on the Internet al Qaeda recruitment videos and other documents….

These dangerous activities the FBI highlights in their press release (because they were at the center of Mehanna’s conviction): Translating and distributing controversial, subversive, despicable, even dangerous material? That’s a very library-like activity, isn’t it? And apparently it’s one that the FBI will investigate you for, even brag about investigating, an activity which can even put you in prison.

Okay, I know some think: maybe there are some first amendment issues here, but this is still a dangerous man, a member of Al Qaeda, right?

But Mehanna is not a member or working at the direction of Al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization. Yes, Mehanna has some very radical political viewpoints. It may surprise you, however, that he has a history of arguing on the internet against the idea that Muslims are religiously allowed to attack civilians .

If you’re curious about Mehanna’s character, beliefs, or personality, the best thing to do is read his statement at his sentencing hearing. Really, go read it, it’s worth reading.

“Tarek translated a variety of Islamic texts out of a scholarly desire to make the texts available to English speakers, to expose them to other viewpoints”, according to his support website.   The reason or ideological motivation someone has for distributing controversial literature ought not to matter, of course:  The first amendment is supposed to protect even those people whose beliefs we find abhorrent. But it’s still worth pointing out that Mehanna’s beliefs aren’t even what you’d probably think they are, from the propaganda against him.  Read his personal statement, see what he has to say for himself.

People still wonder, okay, why would the prosecutor prosecute this guy, if he really wasn’t cooperating with Al Qaeda, if he actually believed attacks on civillians were immoral?  I don’t know.  But he was prosecuted by a US Attorneys’ office well-known for it’s aggressive and vindictive prosecutions, using their prosecutorial discretion against people who have crossed them: The office of Carmen Ortiz, the same office that prosecuted Aaron Swartz.  Mehanna was approached and asked to become an FBI informant, and he refused; maybe that made them mad; that’s what Mehanna thinks.

He is in prison for 17 years.  It is a mark of having gotten used to living in the most incarcerating nation on the planet that a 17-year sentence may not seem all that long. But think about how old you’ll be in 17 years, then think about being away from your family, your career, your personal projects for 17 years, locked up in prison. It’s an awfully long time. To be locked up for distributing controversial literature.

Some are still suspicious, could this really be what’s happened, isn’t this America? Read up on it yourself. Read Andrew March’s Op-Ed in the New York Times: “one of the most important free speech cases we have seen since Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969.”  Read the ACLU of Massachusetts’ legal briefs, or Alex Abdo, ACLU Staff Attorney’s, guest blog piece on Read Adam Serwer’s article in Mother Jones, Glenn Greenwald on, and an article in the Boston area’s MetroWest Daily News.   Read that even one of the jurors in Mehanna’s case is not comfortable with the outcome. 

As a librarian, I support Tarek Mehanna

The librarians’ professional code of ethics says:

In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.

A special obligation.

Tarek Mehanna should not be in prison, and we should do what we can to get him out.

But even more importantly, we have a professional responsibility to society as a whole, to defend freedom of expression and inquiry, and to speak up when we see it threatened. I see our society heading to very scary places.  Increasingly ubiquitous government surveillance without a warrant;  unpredictably harsh punishments for relatively benign crimes at “prosecutor’s discretion”;  even things that sound like only dystopian science fiction that wouldn’t happen here, like secret laws authorizing assasination of american citizens.

“We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.”

Libraries and librarians have a reputation for standing up for freedom of expression and inquiry. A reputation that many of us are justifiably proud of.  And America needs us to do just that right now.

We only deserve that reputation if we are willing to stand up and speak out for freedom of inquiry even when it’s bitterly controversial, when it’s still not too late and things are really on the line, even when it’s not obvious to everyone that we’re right, even at some personal or professional risk  — those are the times when it actually matters, right?

Tarek Mehanna was prosecuted for acts that ought to be protected as freedom of expression and inquiry, including translating and distributing controversial material, an activity at the core of libraries’ missions and activities. 

If you, like me, feel called by your professional ethics to support Tarek Mehanna, check out . Write a letter to Tarek, tell him you’re a librarian (anyone in prison likes getting letters from strangers, for real).  I’m sure he could use a donation to his legal campaign (the appellate case is in process), although the paypal suggested on is “currently unable to accept funds”.

But maybe more importantly, talk to people about Tarek Mehanna and the threat to freedom of inquiry.  Talk to other librarians, and everyone else. Tell people that, as a librarian, you’re deeply concerned about this case.   “Like” the Free Tarek facebook page. If anyone has any interest or ideas in some organized activity as librarians to support Tarek Mahenna, please get in touch.

2 thoughts on “Librarians: When do we stand up for freedom of inquiry?

  1. Is the FBI also going to go after the Library of Congress? I mean, according to the “Report of Fiscal 2007 (Fiscal Year Ended September 30, 2007),” written by the Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate of the Library of Congress, the “Islamabad Office staff continued to acquire significant titles from radical parties and Taliban, including CDs of suicide bombers’ preparations.” (p. 7 in

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