NLB debacle: It’s about freedom of expression, stupid

Last updated on October 20th, 2015 at 11:11 pm

Choo Zheng Xi

On banning books

In a notable American First Amendment case involving an attempt to get a school board to ban a book, the Supreme Court of California held (in 1924) that: -

The mere act of purchasing a book to be added to the school library does not carry with it any implication of the adoption of the theory or dogma contained therein, or any approval of the book itself except as a work of literature fit to be included in a reference library.”

The Supreme Court of California wasn’t considering an attempt to ban anything obscene or subversive. It was considering a ban on the Bible. The King James Version Bible, to be precise.

The case of Evans v. Selma Union High School District was an attempt to prevent the trustees of a High School District from purchasing twelve copies of the King James Version Bible to place in the library of the local High School.

The complaint?

That the King James version of the Bible was “sectarian, partisan, or denominational in character”.

In the history of reading, attempts to ban books have emanated from every side of almost any point of view imaginable.

Every year, the American Librarians Association (ALA) keeps track of attempts by persons or organizations to remove or restrict books from public libraries.

If you’re around my age, you’ll probably have read “To Kill a Mockingbird” as assigned reading at O Levels.

So, you might be as surprised as I was to find out that Harper Lee’s story of racism in a small Southern town is one of the most challenged classics of all time.

In 2006, one Tennessee Middle School faced a petition from a concerned parent seeking to  ban the book on the grounds that it contained “adult themes such as sexual intercourse, rape, incest” and that the use of racial slurs in the book promoted "racial hatred, racial division, racial separation and promotes white supremacy”.

Obviously, the complainant missed the moral of the story.

School boards across the United States have faced attempts to ban titles such as “The Great Gatsby” (crude language and sexual references), “Brave New World” (for showing contempt for religion, marriage and the family), “The Lord of the Rings” (satanic), “Harry Potter” (depictions of the occult) and “Witches” by Roald Dahl (ditto).

Is the National Library Board’s (NLB) removal of two titles for being insufficiently “pro-family” the first step down a slippery slope to controlling publicly available information for narrow and sectarian ends?

I hope not.

The prospect is frightening, and it really should concern all right thinking Singaporeans, gay or straight, religious or atheistic, pro or anti-government.

Censorship: on what authority?

One of the reasons why many the NLB’s censorship is shocking is because public libraries are one of the few neutral(ish) public spaces left in Singapore. Most of Dr Chee Soon Juan’s books are available, you can pick up a copy of the readers' guide to the Satanic Verses, or choose from nearly a dozen books on the Marxist conspiracy.

Part of the function of the NLB is to act as a national repository of information and to make that information accessible.

One of the functions of the NLB under Section 6 of the National Library Board Act is to “promote reading and encourage learning through the use of libraries and their services”. None of the stated functions of the NLB include censoring material not deemed “pro-family” enough.

It might even be arguable that in removing material on the grounds that it is not “pro-family”, Assistant Chief Executive Ms Tay Ai Cheng might have been acting in excess of her authority as a public servant of an institution whose stated aims are mandated by Statute, funded by taxpayers, and whose exercise of powers must be consistent with the rights of the public as enshrined under our Constitution.

The bigger picture

It would be hugely shortsighted to see the removal of “With Tango Makes Three” the penguin from NLB bookshelves as just another skirmish in the “gay vs religious” issue.

It’s actually much more fundamental than that.

Article 14 of our Constitution guarantees every Singaporean citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (to which Singapore is a signatory) explains that the right to freedom of expression includes the “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media”.

As a society, we need to be mature enough to stand up for the rights of our fellow citizens to say things we disagree with.

Those in the “pro-family” camp who are trying to curtail access to “With Tango Makes Three” need to understand that curtailing the rights to free expression in our libraries will have the effect of shrinking the collective civic and intellectual space which even the religious stake a claim to.

Remember, this is the same civic space in which Lawrence Khong wants to hold “pro-family” rallies on the Padang.

If one is a principled proponent of freedom of expression, one has to believe that Pastor Khong should have a right to gather peaceably in public. And, those in the anti-pink dot camp need to return the favour when it comes to the rights to free expression of those that they disagree with.

Perhaps the NLB should take a leaf out of the ALA’s book. The ALA has a “Library Bill of Rights”, which correctly places education and information ahead of ideology.

It reads as follows: -

The American Library Association affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services.

I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.

II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”

What children should or shouldn’t read must be left for individual families to decide. To ask the State to censor books on any ideological basis infantilizes individuals, reduces the diversity of our society, and shrinks the space for informed dialogue.

This entry was posted in Commentaries, Current Affairs.
This entry was posted in Commentaries, Current Affairs.