A Librarian's Take on "Freedom of Speech"

This may be quite the unpopular post, but since when have I worried about being unpopular? My last post (which discussed not being ass-ish on a public non-anonymous list) was taken by some on the NEWLIB-L email list as an attempt to muzzle new librarians posting to the list, and as an attempt to infringe upon freedom of speech, which is, of course, anathema to the entire idea of librarianship. I figured it would be useful for me - if no one else - if I worked through my thoughts on this here.

You can join the list and scour the archives (an unfriendly task if ever I saw one the way NEWLIB is set up - pitiful for librarians who are supposedly into the whole "access" thing), but comments were made to the effect that my chastisement of unprofessional behavior on the list was an attempt to "muzzle" the young librarians (of which I consider myself one, as I haven't quite hit 30 yet), stomping all over their right to free expression in the name of my own interpretation of professional behavior, and encouraging them to be "obsequious followers" as opposed to the courageous, intelligent risk-takers employers are looking for.

I would argue that putting on a stream-of-consciousness display of insulting someone on a public and non-anonymous list is certainly within your rights. When I say "not" to do something in this venue, because we are all adults I assume folks are taking it as strong advice and not an order. (Far as I know, I'm still not a despot with any authority over internet conduct.) So partly this is my fault for giving orders, I suppose. I assume everyone already knows they're free to make an ass of themselves if they so desire. *BUT*, as I posted in a later reply to the list, I don’t think that means I should also have to attach value to people freely expressing themselves as incompetent. I fully expect that many will not heed my warnings/advice/muzzling attempts, and that’s fine. What I had hoped to do was make it obvious that a public professional list is not some anonymous online forum with zero real-life repercussions. I think it’s inappropriate and irresponsible to allow people to feel like they can say/do anything and not expect certain consequences that will indeed affect them - especially those new librarians who, it is occasionally claimed on list, just don't know any better and are learning the ropes.

As for librarianship and the freedom of expression - yes, I consider the support of freedom of expression a mantle you take up when you join this particular profession. If we had a creed, it'd be in there. And while I support the freedom of expression and protests and the airing of unpopular and underappreciated views, I still believe that free expression should be an *educated choice*, not just an excuse to say whatever crosses someone’s mind with an expectation that there won’t be challenge. Yes, I believe in free expression, but that doesn't mean I'm going to support what you say, just your right to say it.

I think what got many people up in arms was that I mentioned that conduct on these public lists could factor into later hiring decisions, since the library world is small and rudeness and inappropriate public response is generally remembered (I think this was the idea that had the most muzzling potential). It wasn't intended as a threat - it was intended as a warning to those who think that because they can post to these lists via email from home in their jammies with a kitty or pup in their lap that they can also be that informal when they post. *buzzer sound* Wrong. It's a librarian list, not a Fark forum or something similar. You're attaching your name and reputation as a professional to your initial posts as well as your replies, and I think I would be remiss if I didn't let new folks know that.

The great - and horrible - thing about the internet is that pretty much everything out there is fodder for inspection. I've had employers let me know during the interview stage that they had already googled me, and I don't think it's too much to assume that employers - especially in the face of increasing applications and evenly matched candidates - might check to see what your activity is on professional lists. Not so much in an attempt to be Big brother-ish as to get a sense of how you contribute to such lists. (Note: I haven't done this, but it's not a bad idea *grin*). As for myself, I've not got a problem with my future employers knowing that I'm occasionally an opinionated bee-yotch who isn't afraid to piss people off if I think it's necessary. They'd find that out about me pretty quickly anyway both by my interview and from my former administrations. I'm aware of it, and I'm aware it may impact me in a not-great way. (Sort of like my very obvious tattoo habit.) But it's a decision I made consciously, and for that reason alone - if we're assuming that NEWLIB is to provide info for those who really are new - I think it's important to share that I think folks should make these decisions consciously. Whether you agree with me on that - or even care at all - well, that's for you to take or leave.

So please, feel free to make a nuisance and a rude ass of yourself on library lists. I just want to make sure that when you do so, you're aware of possible consequences and don't come crying later that you had no idea it would be a factor in your professional future.


mjc said…
that's epic.
Joshua M. Neff said…
Excellent. You're exactly right. I'll quote Harlan Ellison: "Everybody has opinions: I have them, you have them. And we are all told from the moment we open our eyes, that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Well, that’s horsepuckey, of course. We are not entitled to our opinions; we are entitled to our informed opinions." You have the right to say what you want, but if you say something uninformed or stupid, someone's gonna call you on it.
Colleen said…
Josh - That is so incredibly true. And would have saved me all that keying if I had just known to post that quote!
Catherine said…
My standard response to anyone crying "freedom of speech" is to quote the actual document that grants that freedom, i.e., the Bill of Rights:

"Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech..."

Notice the subject of that sentence? It's "Congress." That means that laws cannot be written to restrict speech, not that advice cannot be given regarding speech. Big difference.

If Congress (or the state assembly, or other such legislative body) isn't the one telling you to shut up or reconsider your language, it's not an abridgement of freedom of speech.
paksenn said…
I think that those of us who have been in the profession long enough see this conversation cycle over and over again. Your online presence IS part of your professional image. As a member of search committees I admit to looking at candidates' online representations of themselves. No one is stopping you from posting to listservs or writing blog posts but be aware as Colleen as most effectively stated, that others are also noting when your fingers outrun your brain.
Jill said…
Thank you Colleen for saying what so many of us are thinking. I've decided to unsubscribe from NEWLIB because it has generated into a free-for-all too often. I know the moderators want to keep it open, but I think they'd be more responsible to ban the very specific few who are instigators of this behavior. It would make the list more productive and valuable to future and new librarians.

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