When the Supreme Court last week upheld a federal law that requires public libraries receiving federal aid for Internet technology to install pornography-filtering software on their computers, the American Library Assn. protested vociferously. The 64,000-member ALA, the leading professional organization for the nation’s public, college and other librarians, had opposed the Children’s Internet Protection Act since its passage in 1998, arguing that the filtering software for children might interfere with the 1st Amendment rights of adult patrons of libraries to view works of art and legitimate health information on the web.
“It’s a fundamentally flawed and terrible decision,” said the ALA’s outgoing president, Maurice J. Freedman, who believes that the federal law unduly burdens librarians by forcing them to monitor the filters if they want to keep their taxpayer-funded Internet subsidies.
The “right to read” is dear to the heart of the ALA, which has a history of hyperalertness to the smallest hints of censorship at U.S. libraries, even the largely hypothetical censorship at issue in the filtering case. (Adult patrons can request to have the filters turned off under the Supreme Court’s ruling, and one study cited by the government shows that even when they are turned on, they incorrectly block only 1.4% of Web sites containing legitimate medical data when set at their least restrictive level.) It is thus ironic -- although perhaps telling -- that the very same ALA, meeting in Toronto for its annual convention the very week the Supreme Court handed down its decision, refused to issue even the mildest condemnation of Cuba’s harsh treatment of some of its own librarians who were targets of Fidel Castro’s sweeping crackdown on dozens of dissidents in March.
Seventy-five economists, poets and democracy advocates are serving sentences of up to 26 years apiece after hasty trials for violating Cuba’s harsh and vaguely worded national security laws. Among those being held are 10 directors of independent, nongovernment-affiliated lending libraries specializing in books that were either hard to find in Cuba or offensive to the Castro regime. The independent librarians, whose tiny libraries typically consisted of a single room in their homes, were trying to do exactly what the ALA librarians said they were trying to do in the Internet-filtering case: make material available to the public free of government censorship and control. Their crimes consisted of disliking Castro and lending out books such as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and tracts on free-market economics. The prosecutions were the culmination of a long period of Cuban government harassment of the 5-year-old independent library movement, which encompasses about 200 libraries around the island.
Human Rights Watch has condemned as a travesty of justice the proceedings against these nonviolent dissidents, whose books, computers and papers were confiscated upon their arrests. Amnesty International called the 75 “prisoners of conscience.” The International Federation of Library Assns. and Institutions issued a statement May 8 expressing its “deepest concerns” over the long sentences for dissidents and extending support to “the Cuban library community in safeguarding free access to print and electronic information.”
The ALA, by contrast, did zilch on behalf of its members’ imprisoned Cuban colleagues. At the Toronto meeting last week, the organization’s 175-member governing council failed to vote on a resolution similar in wording to that of the international librarians’ federation, instead opting to send it back to committee for revision. The U.S. government’s Interests Section in Havana, which takes the place of an embassy there, supplies many small Cuban libraries with office materials and books -- biographies of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the like -- which apparently makes the librarians paid U.S. agents in the eyes of many.
Adding insult to injury, the ALA held a panel discussion at the convention on libraries in Cuba. All five Cuban delegates to the panel were representatives of Cuba’s state-owned public library system, including Eliades Acosta Matos, head of the Jose Marti National Library, a government-controlled enterprise. Acosta Matos is on record as calling the independents “traitors,” “criminals” and “mercenaries.” A pro-independents activist, Robert Kent, a librarian with the New York City Public Library, tried to persuade the ALA to add to the panel Ramon Colas, a co-founder of the Cuban independent library movement who recently fled Cuba after repeated detentions and confiscations of his books. The ALA turned down the request, contending that because Colas lacked a degree in library science, he was not a professional librarian. (On that argument, neither is Acosta Matos, nor for that matter, is James Billington, the librarian of Congress). Freedman finally agreed to allow a separate debate on Cuban libraries but changed his mind just before the convention. “We say that’s censorship,” said Kent, co-founder of Friends of Independent Libraries, a support group for the Cuban dissidents.
What seems to be at issue in the ALA is politics. Mark Rosenzweig, chief librarian of the Reference Center for Marxist Studies (the repository of the archives of the Communist Party USA), is a leading figure of the ALA’s Social Responsibility Round Table, viewed by many observers as aggressively pro-Castro. Listening to Rosenzweig talk is like listening to a reading from “Animal Farm” -- or maybe “1984.”
“There was hardly even the pretense that these people were librarians,” Rosenzweig said in a telephone interview last week. “I have got books in my apartment too but that doesn’t make me a librarian. These are people who have been dissidents for many years. They’re pro-U.S. They have connections with the Miami dissident groups.” Translation: In Cuba, it’s a crime to be a dissident, especially if you have relatives in Florida.
Larry Oberg, university librarian at Willamette University, participated in an ALA fact-finding trip to Cuba in 2001. This is what he told me last week: “They’re opening libraries as a front.” In an earlier e-mail, Oberg expressed shock that the independent librarians lacked degrees in library science and did not properly catalog their books.
That may be, but at around the same time that Oberg was in Cuba making his observations, Marion Lloyd, reporting for the Houston Chronicle, sent a Cuban friend to request two books for her at a state library: Orwell’s “1984" and exiled Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s novel “Three Trapped Tigers.” The librarian refused to provide the student with Infante’s novel, telling him that it was “counterrevolutionary.” “1984" was not even in the library’s catalog.
“I’m genuinely committed to freedom of access to information,” said Freedman, who noted that he knew many ALA members who wished that the organization had voted with other worldwide organizations to condemn Castro’s crackdown. There is a final irony, too: While the ALA frets about Americans’ lack of access to some Web pages, 99% of Cuba’s 11 million people lack any access to the Web -- by deliberate design of the Castro regime.
“They’re afraid of what would happen if they allowed access,” Oberg said. Now, doesn’t that sound familiar?