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Sunday Reflections: What are the limits of free speech in the library? Reflections on the incident at Aurora Public Library

Yesterday I was sitting at the Reference Desk, scrolling through Twitter to see what was happening in the world – and the library world more specifically – when I came across an angry post by many of my peers that shared the picture of a poem on display in the Aurora Public Library (IL). They had a display of poetry out in the public to celebrate National Poetry Month. Upon further research, they also shared a picture of this particular poem on their Facebook poem.

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I am not going to share a picture of the poem here, but you can see it for yourself if you are not familiar with it here. This is a poem that celebrates a son yanking the hijab of a nearby Mulsim and liken a hijab to jihad; it celebrates violence against Muslims and proclaims it as the most sincere expression of patriotism, never mind that the First Amendment guarantees the right to religious freedom. Never mind, also, that this poem is an expression of hate speech, arguably the only form of unprotected speech, that seems to suggest committing a crime, in this case assault, because someone practices a religion that the parent doesn’t agree with. The poem is placed on top of a picture of the Confederate flag.

It should be noted that many people, including the poet’s author and the Aurora Public Library itself, suggest that this poem is satire. Satire is “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issue.” I am a well read individual with a strong passion for poetry, and I must admit that I did not read this poem as satire. With no context, just a picture of a poster on display in a public library lobby, no artist’s statement, no show title, etc., the poem reads like any anti-Muslim Facebook post or comments section that we see far too often on the Internet in the year 2018.

Furthermore, this is a public display, which means that every patron that walks into that lobby is met with this poem. Including young children who know how to read but do not yet have any real skills to breakdown and analyze a poem of this nature. Including Muslim women who already live in increased fear in the United States because violent acts of this nature can and do occur far too often. Including White Supremacists who are just as likely to see this poem as an affirmation of their beliefs as they are to view it as a satirical criticism challenging their beliefs.

But, of course, the discourse soon turned to the First Amendment protection of free speech and whether or not the library had an obligation to show this poem in the manner that it did. To be clear, I view the shelving of books on a shelf as a far different thing then putting something on public display. There is a huge difference between simply putting a book on a shelf that a patron can choose or not to read and putting a poem like this on prominent display in a public building.

Our public libraries should be safe and welcoming spaces for all. Muslim members of our community should not have to fear walking into a public library and reading a prominently displayed poem that advocates ripping off their clothing because someone finds it offensive. It defies the very mission of a public library; its very sacred role in the local community. By putting that poem on display that library broke trust with its community and and it amplified the harm already being done to these marginalized populations.

And please note, the poem doesn’t just do harm to Muslim women, it does harm to Native Americans as well in the comparisons that it makes.

I used to host an annual teen poetry contest and right there on the submission form it said that the library reserved the right to not put on display or publish any poems that were harmful or inappropriate for a public display. And there IS a difference here, the library has no legal or moral obligation to put hate speech on public display.

In a follow up tweet this morning, the Aurora Public Library indicated that the poem was being taken down. It’s unfortunate that they did so without any apology to the members of their public that they put in harms ways. My heart breaks for every Muslim man, woman and child that walked into that library and was reminded, once again, how hostile their local community is to them and learned that even their public library is not a safe and welcoming space for them. And my heart breaks because this goes against everything I think a public library should be to its community.

The Mayor made a statement about the display here.

Initial statement from Aurora Public Library here.

Message from the President of the Board from the Aurora Public Library here.

Edited to correctly identify who the above statements are from

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