An Excellent Example

Ever since my days as Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I have tried to explain the philosophy behind the First Amendment to well-meaning citizens who simply wanted to shut down those people spreading “bad” ideas, or later, to students who couldn’t understand why people they found hateful (many of whom were, indeed, hateful) were being allowed to peddle their bigotry.

I still remember a hearing held by a City-County Council committee “investigating” the Marion County Library because it allowed minors to access books that the chair of the committee considered inappropriate. (She wasn’t mollified by the fact that the library honored the directives of parents who didn’t want their kids to access certain materials. She explained that a lot of parents weren’t–in her eyes, at least–good parents who would avail themselves of the opportunity to censor their children.)

I don’t know how often I’ve tried to explain that the Bill of Rights–and especially the First Amendment–answers the question “who decides?” The Bill of Rights is a list of things that  government doesn’t get to decide.

I just read one of the very best explanations of that simple rule that I’ve come across. It was written by Wally Paynter, Executive Director of the Tri-State Alliance, in response to folks who want the Evansville Public Library to discontinue its “Drag Queen Story Hour.”

A few quotes:

Some members of the community are trying to limit what library programs are available to the public. It is similar to banning books. As an EVPL patron, I have a choice of what books I read and what programs I attend. However, it is not my right to decide what books other patrons are allowed to read and what programs others are allowed to attend….

Some Christians oppose Santa Claus, stating it takes away from the reason for the season. My pastor does Santa Claus Story Hour at the EVPL locations. Those who oppose the character Santa Claus do not try to stop other parents from bringing their kids to the event. They just don’t take their kids.

The same is true for Halloween. Some Christians oppose the celebration of Halloween. But do we end Halloween events at EVPL, or do we let parents choose what programs to take their kids to?

The letter also calls out the homophobia being expressed during this debate, a reminder that it is all too often marginalized people who are censored. But the most powerful point being made is reflected in the quoted paragraphs: our Constitution protects individual autonomy–the right of each of us to form our own moral, religious and political opinions, to determine what is important in our lives (what philosophers call our telos) and to choose how to live those lives.

So long as we do not harm the person or property of others, and so long as we are willing to respect the same rights for others, we are free to “do our own thing.”

Don’t like that magazine? Don’t read it. Don’t approve of that play? Don’t see it. Think that book is scandalous? Don’t buy it. Don’t approve of drag queens reading books to kids at the library story hour? Don’t take your kids.

In our system, you have the right to decide what you will read, attend and believe. But as Wally Paynter points out, you don’t have the right to decide what other people will read, attend and/or believe.

Live and let live is evidently really hard for some people.


  1. the library was a refuge when i was growing up, the kaos of a changing nieghborhood and just wanting to know. i was not restricted, the adult section was as open,as any other section(but ya had to be quiet). at 12 i was probably in my lifes change. i went to the local park, the seniors,retired,and moms went there with the kids,when moms stayed home..i listened to the vets, men who imrespected,as my granddad,a working man,associated with in conversation. those convesations led me to the library,and a word of answers,and pictures. it had newspapers from some euro countries,and many u.s. small world exploded,as my thinking was about to see some of the horrors of ww2. this alone led me to view,and question our own race,the politicians,and the world. keep reading,and never,allow anyone,to hinder your mind,or growth. many died, to keep you alive,and informed.

  2. Well, it would appear that Christians dominate the government in Indiana so how they use their power isn’t surprising. The GOPers in this state are classic examples of frauds/hypocrites speaking to Christian/Hoosier values while touting bigotry, hate, and racism. This is how they foment the troops to keep the baby killers out of office.

    Our state is stuck in the 18th or 19th century.

    And Evansville, definitely the 17th or 18th century with their roots in Evangelism and Southern Baptist. Oh my…

    Their blind faith keeps them from seeing that their government heroes are selling them out…literally.

    The 1st amendment has been bastardized in this country. Our supreme court justices have ruled that MONEY = FREE SPEECH.

    This mathematical equation is simple even for kindergartners…the more money you have, the more free speech you have to influence.

    ML’s articles were classic DNC free speech – we have two agendas: 1) One agenda for the voters which is nothing but rhetoric; and; 2) The real agenda we share with our corporate donors.

    Anyone supporting Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer is a fool. These two are corporate owned shills who have taken an oath to the DNC – NOT the people. They are extremely polished liars, unlike Trump. Their talent is using forked tongues to sell out Main Street.

  3. Pence’s RFRA forces his personal religious views on parts of the state of Indiana; disallowing the religious views of the majority of residents. His anti-abortion bill, the most restrictive in the nation, endangers the lives of young girls and women, again based on his personal religious beliefs. He hasn’t yet found a way to silence those who believe differently; I wonder if Mother has found a way in her new teaching job?

    The movie, “Denial”, was about the libel suit Holocaust Denier and Hitler supporter, David Irving, filed against one of the books published by Holocaust and Nazi historian Deborah Lipstadt. Her book “History On Trial: My Day In Court With A Holocaust Denier” was the basis for the movie. Irving was proven to be a liar and Ms. Lipstadt’s book was fully upheld. In a press conference following the trial, one reporter accused her of trying to deny Irving his freedom of speech. Paraphrasing Ms. Lipstadt’s response, “I am not denying Mr. Irving or anyone else of their right to freedom of speech; but liars should expect to be confronted with their lies by those who recognize them.” This fact based movie and book reminded me of Leon Uris’ book and TV mini-series, “QB VII”; the Polish doctor named in his book “Exodus” filed a libel suit because his name was used. Mr. Uris was found guilty of libel because it did damage the doctor personally in the eyes of the public. But he was only award one half-penny, the lowest coin in the realm, to cover his damages. Trump’s reference to the damage caused by anti-Semitism in his SOTU last night appeared to me to be a way to excuse his removal of our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the expense it will incur and opening the possibility of another Trump Tower to go up. Freedom of speech at a dangerous level.

    Another town or system is trying to remove access to the classic book, “To Kill A Mockingbird”, finding some of the language offensive. We all know they are referring to the “N” word; if we try to change or remove that offensive, insulting term and the Jim Crow laws or the ugly, killing attacks by police with clubs, dogs and fire hoses from long published books and movies; we are removing historical facts of why the civil rights movement was so vital in this country and why the SCOTUS removal of some of those hard fought-for rights is dangerous and vital today.

    Thanks to my form of freedom of speech by posting my Democratic candidate signs yearly in my front yard; few neighbors now speak to me. But this began only after 2016 and they, who had never posted a political yard sign before, planted Trump signs in their front yard. No way to deny that connection, some of them were friendly prior to November 2016. They are piss-poor winners.

    “In our system, you have the right to decide what you will read, attend and believe. But as Wally Paynter points out, you don’t have the right to decide what other people will read, attend and/or believe.

    Live and let live is evidently really hard for some people.”

    I am going to add “post your choice of yard signs” to the list of what you will read, attend and believe. But when schools, libraries and the government force their views on us; currently in the form of laws in some cases, that undermines the stability of specific areas, cities, states and this country.

  4. I keep reading, on this blog, about the “legacy” of Mike Pence and his evangelical pals who have worked so hard to destroy the First Amendment in Indiana. Moreover, he seems to embraced xenophobia, ironically, which is the opposite of his so-called Lord and Savior.

    How do these fools justify that hypocrisy to the voters? Or is it just that the voters don’t care about truth and are just happy with being idiots?

  5. As a literature teacher, I always respected the rights of parents when they requested that their child not read a certain book. HOWEVER, I never allowed those parents to determine WHAT I could teach and which students could read the material. I found that the more informed students became, and the more parents realized that I would never make decisions harmful to their children, the less of an issue it became.

  6. Thank you very much Sheila,

    The ultimate expression of this attitude was framed in the photographs from the 1930s of the Nazi book burnings which, even when I was a kid, I found to be horrific. For the last 40 years I’ve either worked with libraries or in libraries starting with a 12 year stint with the Indiana State Archives which, at that time, occupied the first floor and basement of the Indiana State Library Building. We had a side door in our archives reading room that led directly into the stacks of the State Library and, as a result, I was like a kid in a candy store. So many books to read over my time there that helped me was school and also tons and tons a recreational reading on a wide variety of subjects.

    Since then I were in numerous other institutions on historical research projects and also served as a librarian, even though I am not really one of those, at Riley Hospital for Children where we provided reading material for both our patients and their families and had a reading programs designed to encourage kids to read and free books, tons of them, to help their families accumulating reading material for them. My background is really research but that also included helping their young kids find their favorite Dr. Seuss books, among other ones, on a very regular basis which was a load of fun, especially when I got to hear from them why they love these books so much. It sort of worms your heart to interact with a child far from being age of 10 that really loves to read.

    For anyone to shut such access to reading materials undercuts one of the most basic tenets of our democracy; having an informed electorate. Personally, I’m for open access books, videos, recordings of anything and everything so that the reader or reviewer has the ability to make up his or her mind as to what they want a read without any hindrances on access to those materials. To do otherwise we run the risk of being like Germany in the 1930s where people in positions of power were able to decide what people should read and what they shouldn’t where gifted and very talented writers were forced to leave their own country and flee to the west for their lives. God only knows how many ended up in concentration camps from the 1930s because of what they wrote.

    We can never on any level let this happen here. We have to have an open expression of ideas so did we as a people can make the most informed decisions we can possibly make at every level of our society and be unencumbered by restrictions that are politically or culturally applied to hinder that.

    Libraries should almost literally glow in the dark when you consider how important what they contain really is are the advancement of our own society and the world in general and if we do anything to stifle or limit that access or the accumulation of such information we do so at our own grave peril. Those materials, including those that people want to ban, service guideposts for the future of humanity.

  7. Taken out of context, as our Evangelical brethren are wont to do, one can make parts of the Constitution and parts of the Bible line up to say whatever you want them to say. Look what happened when the Supreme Court decided that, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…,” wasn’t an essential part of the second amendment.

  8. When I was a little kid, I used to think it was wonderful that I could think about and talk about anything I wanted to think about and talk about. The older I got, the more I realized there were a great many adults who felt they were more qualified than I was to determine what went into my head and/or out of my mouth.

    Now that I’m an old geezer, I’m quite aware that more and more senior citizens spend an unbelievable amount of time looking for organizations of people who think and talk like they do. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s nice to see both sides of any situation and then come up with a third way to go.

  9. An example of freedom of speech from SOTU last night which I find questionable; Trump stated “…over the past 2 years nearly 5 million have been lifted off food stamps…” What exactly does “lifted off” mean? The Associated Press fact checked the speech and merely stated “…it hasn’t declined that much…” This, is but one of the AP “fact checks” which shows Trump simply overstating or possibly misquoting but their fact checks do not show any of it as a major issue.

    Steve Karnacki (a strange fellow, he) on MNSBC showed a chart depicting the gradual decline of food stamp USAGE since Clinton; this shows it hasn’t been Trump who brought about the “lift off” of food stamp users. An important fact to be aware of but not the only one on this issue.

    My question is this; how do we find facts regarding the decline in the NEED for food stamps vs. the loss of AVAILABILITY of food stamps thanks to including them in such as the Farm Bill? No mention of government administrations lowering access to food stamps. When we have to fact check the fact checkers; such as the Associated Press and MSNBC; we further lose faith in our already questionable media sources.

  10. We learned early in constitutional law classes that the Bill of Rights were limitations on rather than powers given government, so Sheila’s observations apply to the other nine Amendments as well. Some of us may recall the march of Nazis in Cicero, Illinois. We had people who certainly were not Nazis who upheld their right to march in a show of constitutional rectitude. I think since then we have redefined the “right” to exclude marches by terrorists, and rightly so.

    Yes, it’s tough as thoughtful citizens to have to sit and watch language and demonstrations that are at great odds with what we believe, but we have to grimace and bear it because if we act to remove such language and demonstration we are asking for similar treatment with the result that all of us may lose or suffer a diminution of our First Amendment rights and with it, our democracy though I, for one, am grimacing a lot with Trump these days.

  11. Regarding the 2nd Amendment…..just read in the excellent book, “American Dialogue” by Joseph Ellis, that the draft wording had the two phrases in the reverse order which would have clarified that this was about militias and not individuals and, apparently, the history of who/how it got changed is lost. Ain’t history terribly accidental!

    It is venting that defuses action. As long as we can bitch and moan, and compete in our bitching and moaning, and marvel at someone’s spectacular brand of bitching and moaning, as long as we can sing any damned sad and angry song we wish, we will never rise up to make things better. IT IS FREE SPEECH THAT IS THE REAL OPIATE OF THE MASSES. In our country, it is ACTION that is verboten. Frankly, I prefer action to venting.

  13. Surprisingly people confuse freedom and power. We can say what we will, but more importantly sometimes, others can still do what we want to talk about. I think that makes things interesting frankly. I can’t even imagine living in Mike Pence’s world or the world he would like us to live in.

    Even the President can stand in front of the whole nation and lie like a rug. He can even threaten Congress, if they do their job of holding him accountable to the law, with preventing them from doing their other job of making laws. He’s free but he’s not that powerful.

  14. Totalitarians and authoritarians secular or religious must always control, what we read, think, hear and see. Rote memorization of what they want you to know is vital. They cannot tolerate critical thinking or questioning their beliefs.

  15. I worked in the Marion County system for many years and learned within the library systems nation and worldwide,, there has always been some kind of controversy and many if not most of these issues have been fueled by religious and racial causes. All that matters is that regarding the First Amendment, the library is the perfect battleground because these issues are met head on within our communities. I found an interesting history of banned books and thought I’d share it with you all:

  16. Sheila – you have a teacher’s talent to explain things better than anyone. Thanks for this.

  17. Snip..

    {Don’t like that magazine? Don’t read it. Don’t approve of that play? Don’t see it. Think that book is scandalous? Don’t buy it. Don’t approve of drag queens reading books to kids at the library story hour? Don’t take your kids.}

    We should add…

    Don’t like comments from Todd,Monotonous,et al?

    Move On!

  18. If Indiana could stop making nationwide and world news with this tripe, that would be great.

  19. At one point when I lived in Maryland, they still had a film censorship board. I always wanted to be appointed to that, just for the meetings. I always imagined comments like “I think this is too disgusting for everyone, but let’s watch it again, just to be sure”.

    They disbanded the board and I never even got to eavesdrop, let alone be allowed to watch movies they deemed immoral.

    Books, movies, and library programs – censorship keeps rearing its ugly head.

Comments are closed.