My Grandfather and the Freedom to Read
Anyone who knew my grandfather would see his likeness in my face, particularly around the eyes. My family might say the wanderlust with which I am afflicted, was his first too. What would make him happiest though, would be to know that his love of reading continues on in his grandchildren.
To think of my grandfather is to think of books, his own and all others, and the belief I gained from him is that the written word, whether agreeable or not, must be valued and protected. Robert Bingham Downs was a wonderful storyteller, a kind grandfather, and a tenacious opponent to any who would undermine the freedoms of the First Amendment.
During what he described as the “virulent epidemic” of McCarthyism, my grandfather was the president of the American Library Association. He was one among the many on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s radar. In 1953, he received a letter from the Senator asking him if he personally supported the anticensorship ideas expressed in the ALA’s inaugural Freedom to Read Statement, which begins “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy”. In his wired reply, Bob Downs offered no room for doubt; he did, wholeheartedly.
His unflappable conviction and the work of the ALA tested the patience of a powerful senator, but also gained the praise of the nation’s president. In a letter to my grandfather from June 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower wrote, “The libraries of America are and must ever remain the homes of free, inquiring minds. To them, our citizens … must ever be able to turn with clear confidence that there they can freely seek the whole truth,…”
My grandfather fought for my freedom to be curious, my freedom to think for myself, my freedom to understand why someone else thinks differently. I feel a sense of urgency when I hear of a book that is banned somewhere, and I have yet to read it. When I learn that information from one source has been censored, or worse yet self-censored, I work to track down the full story elsewhere.
In the spring of 2003, computer hackers acted with misguided patriotism and disabled access to the English-language Al-Jazeera website. Of course, there is nothing patriotic about silencing a different perspective. These vigilantes had decided for me that I should be ignorant about what people in another part of the world were saying and feeling about the news of the day.
My best hope for understanding these complicated times is found in reading multiple points of view from a variety of authors. As I read and research, I do it with gratitude. I believe the drafters of the Bill of Rights placed freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the First Amendment because their importance to our society justified their placement at the top of the list.
I thank my grandfather for his fearless determination to maintain this right, and I thank everyone who has ever worked to preserve it.