The Brooklyn Central Public Library on Grand Army Plaza embroiled itself in a censorship controversy this February by excluding several pieces from a show documenting the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards neighborhood. The exhibition, “Footprints: Portrait of a Brooklyn Neighborhood,” first appeared at Grand Center, a community space in Prospect Heights. When the Library offered to host the show, it also stipulated that some of the work, which could be perceived as advocacy against the pending development of the area, should be excluded. Even though the library offered other rationales– size and artistic merit – the political position advanced by some of the work was clearly the reason for the exclusion.
Is this censorship?
Libraries have traditionally been our best allies in defense of First Amendment freedoms. Librarians have gone to bat innumerable times to protect a book against groups calling for its removal and spoken fiercely in defense of the public’s right to access information freely. In this case, however, the BCPL made an error of judgment, which put them in the role of the censor:
The First Amendment defines censorship as the suppression of speech by public officials because of the point of view expressed in it. As the library personnel at BCPL are public officials and as the work was rejected because of its critical point of view, their action may well be defined as censorship.
Library officials insist that, because it “serves the entire community,” BCPL does not “offer platforms for one-sided advocacy on controversial political issues.” We doubt the library would reject a book because it laid out an argument on a matter of social importance no matter how one sided the argument was. Why reject an artwork?
It would not be unusual, in an exhibition documenting a neighborhood, to include work also documenting an important debate about the future of this neighborhood. Yet, as a result of BCPL’s decision, viewers would be deprived of information that there even exists a debate around the redevelopment. Is that the best way to serve a community?
Exhibiting work advocating a particular point of view does not mean that the library is endorsing that point of view any more than buying a book for the collection means endorsing its argument. If the library is concerned about misperception, there are other ways to avoid appearing one-sided while protecting free debate: it could put a note explaining that the exhibition does not represent the position of the library and it could organize public programming or add work that represents other sides of the debate.
Removing work from a show because it takes a position on an important public debate not only goes against First Amendment principles, it also betrays the library’s mission to represent a diversity of viewpoints. It is a regrettable error of judgment on part of an institution that has traditionally been one of the most principled defenders of the free circulation of ideas.