This I Believe

Ian - Fort Myers, Florida
Entered on April 26, 2007

Recently, as part of my coursework in an Information Policy class, I took part in a project in which I and a group of my class-mates were tasked with developing Standards of Decency for the notional community of Redmond, MN. The purpose of the exercise was to familiarize us, a group of graduate students in Library and Information Science, with the challenges of making information policy decisions that balance the needs of all members of the community. To that end we were required to formulate guidelines for collection development and internet filtering in public & school libraries, for the use of public spaces for meetings, gatherings, or exhibits, and for media and theatre production content.

As mentioned, my team-mates and I are all graduate students in Information Science … for the most part librarians or prospective librarians. Now, librarians take the First Amendment pretty seriously and, to quote the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics, “… uphold the principles of intellectual freedom.” This was a group I would have expected to fight censorship and try to promote the free exchange of ideas. But a strange thing happened as we met to discuss our assignment. We found ourselves proposing ways limit speech, and to restrict the exchange of ideas. How could this be?

I’m reminded of the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which participants assigned the roles of “prison guard” and “prisoner” adopted the societally expected behavior associated with those roles. Assigned the role of the Decency Board, of censors, if you will, we looked for ways to censor. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to us, really. Communities are by definition normative, featuring as they do a common cultural and historical heritage. And it’s to the good of the community, in some ways, if those put in charge of safe-guarding the community, or aspects of it, look for ways to strengthen what they hold in common and exclude that which is other.

But there are more than 300 million people the United States, and nearly 7 billion people on the planet, and the world has grown small enough that we are all of us living in each other’s back pockets. If we are all going to get along, and get any kind of benefit out of the diversity of view-point available to us, we need to build our institutions to encourage rather than to suppress expression. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves hearing only ideas we’ve already had.

To break myself out of the censoring mind-set, I had to adopt the position that as much as possible was to be permitted. I had to accept the idea that my initial assumption about the assignment, that we were tasked with limiting speech, was flawed. Instead, I took my job to be to craft a framework that would not just allow but would encourage the free exchange of view-point. This, I believe, is the duty of those who set information policy … to encourage expression and the exchange of ideas.