Often, the notion of intellectual property is viewed only through the legal lens of personal and/or corporate ownership over texts and media; however, for this response I would like to instead consider a more romantic notion of a public intellectual property - a shared obligation to consider the ways in which information can be protected and made accessible regardless of its content or ownership.
Every year at the end of September, the American Library Association sponsors Banned Books Week, a simultaneous celebration of intellectual freedom and a reminder of the dangers censorship poses in every corner of society. The ALA tracks the number of challenges and bans around the country—however, it can only track what is reported, which means that there is a possibility that the number of challenges or bans is even greater that reported, including those libraries and librarians that self-censor, refusing to even add controversial materials to their collections. In light of Banned Books Week, to what extent might we view the library as a site for housing a public intellectual property, one which often seeks to allow patrons access to, and to subvert, private intellectual properties?
In such a case, it may behoove us to consider what texts are deemed controversial within this semi-public space. In 2015, the most challenged books represented diverse backgrounds, including race, religion, and sexual orientation. The censorship of them deprives libraries and the communities they serve of information and stifles the conversations that help us progress and develop socially, both as individuals and as a community. On the heels of Banned Books Week 2016, it is important to consider the pervasiveness of censorship through access, and its unexpected (but hardly surprising) life in every corner of society.
Even consider a recent incident at a speaking event sponsored by the Jewish Community Foundation at the Kansas City Public Library, in which an attendee and library employee were arrested after the discussion became heated. After an attendee began making unpopular statements referencing 9/11 conspiracy theorists during a question and answer session, a private security guard hired for the event attempted to remove the attendee from the room. A library employee stepped in to deescalate the situation, eventually escorting the attendee to the door. The situation ended with the employee and attendee both being detained, arrested, and now prosecuted—all because of one individual’s personal expression of an unpopular opinion. The KCPL is standing behind the patron and employee, and petitioning (unsuccessfully, to this point) for charges to be dropped for both individuals..
Regardless of who was in the right or in the wrong, for this incident to take place in a library, where intellectual freedom is held sacred, is indicative of just how frightened our collective society can become of ideas that challenge predominant worldviews. Censorship is a reaction to the unknown, born out of fear and a desire to maintain control over ideas that make us uncomfortable. It stifles conversation, and it stifles the voices of reason who would intervene and perhaps advance the conversation rather than dominate it. In facing that censorship, we might view ourselves as taking stewardship of our intellectual properties; indeed, acknowledging this discomfort is how we grow and develop—the threat of violence or escalation leads those who would make their voices heard to second guess themselves, depriving the conversation of important voices. We live in what former Obama administration speechwriter Jon Lovett so memorably calls “the culture of shut up”—we silence what makes us uncomfortable, because it is easier to ignore it rather than reexamine our own beliefs or question our own personal truths. The ownership of our private intellectual spaces should not override our stewardship of our shared, public intellectual properties.
The question then becomes—in a time where political correctness has been taken to entirely new heights (or lows, depending on your ideological persuasions)—how we continue to question those truths and create a forum that values and welcomes intellectual freedom and dissenting viewpoints and values the freedom and the right to personal expression in practice, rather than just in theory. Part of that solution may require scholars to reconsider their notions of intellectual property and the commons, to encourage a more public ownership of both.