Last month (September 2009), the American Library Association (ALA) sponsored Banned Books Week, an initiative purporting to promote intellectual freedom, which it defined as “the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular.” Yet even while it was busy promoting the event to draw attention to “the harms of censorship,” it was immersed in a separate stealth campaign to suppress intellectual freedom and to marginalize a dissenting voice.
On July 12, 2009, Robert Spencer, the editor of JihadWatch.com and author of the recently published “The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran,” was invited to join a panel forum at the ALA’s annual General Meeting on the topic “Perspectives on Islam: Beyond the Stereotyping.”
As he was leaving to catch a plane for the event, Spencer learned that it had been cancelled. According to reports he later read on the Internet, Ahmed Rehab, Chicago executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), was responsible for bringing about the cancellation. In a letter to ALA, Rehab wrote: “I ask you to rescind the invitation to Mr. Spencer in order to maintain the integrity of the panel and the reputation of the ALA.” Mr. Spencer, he argued, offered “grotesque viewpoints that lie well outside the bounds of reason and civilized debate.”
The reports were supported with press releases issued by CAIR-Chicago admitting that it along with the Council on Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC), a coalition of more than 50 Muslim organizations, the other ALA panelists and a number of librarians and academics pressured ALA to drop Spencer from the conference. The press releases referred to Spencer as “Islamophobic” and one “who systematically spreads fear, bigotry, and misinformation.”
By pressuring ALA, CAIR-Chicago, CIOGC and others had just one objective in mind: to deprive Spencer (and ALA) of the freedom to present information and to express ideas, even though the information he would be expected to present and his ideas might be considered “unorthodox or unpopular.”
ALA maintains an Office for Intellectual Freedom. As its mission statement claims, “…[I]ntellectual freedom can exist only where the freedom to express oneself and the freedom to choose what opinions and viewpoints to consume are both met.” That clearly was a principle the Islamic groups, by their pressure tactics, threatened. ALA should have been prepared to defend itself against such a transparent assault on intellectual freedom. By challenging ALA to cancel Spencer’s appearance, they achieved their objective, and ALA exposed its support for intellectual freedom to be duplicitous if not entirely fraudulent.
With its tough talk, ALA would be expected to have invited Spencer to show up alone. After all, the panel topic referred to “perspectives” in the plural form, implying there would be more than one perspective presented, presumably heterodox. It also promised a discussion that would reveal how Islam, as a culture, transcends the narrow perceptions some hold of it. Pulling Spencer’s appearance would contradict ALA’s lofty claims and signal a surrender to the power of censorship.
Yet surrender it did. One might imagine that by cancelling the event, ALA was merely making a politically expedient decision to avoid alienating local constituencies in the Chicago region where it is headquartered. But when Spencer asked to be reimbursed a paltry sum for non-refundable airfare and lodging expenses he had incurred, ALA told him to take a hike. His request for an apology was just ignored.
Remarkably, when Spencer offered to eat his expenses if ALA would simply invite him back to speak at another event, ALA’s attorney, Paula Cozzi Goedert of the law firm Barnes & Thornburg, accused him of attempting extortion. This from an organization that seemed open to extortionist tactics.
After much legal haggling, ALA eventually agreed to reimburse Spencer a small portion of the amount he claimed he was owed but refused to admit it had made a mistake or to offer him an invitation. This time, it was Spencer’s turn to reject, and he did.
Spencer, of course, knows something about Islam’s perspective on free speech. In his 2008 book “Stealth Jihad,” he pointed to the efforts of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), whose members include fifty-seven governments of Muslim-majority states, to craft a “legal instrument” to fight “Islamophobia,” which means any criticism of Islam.
This “legal instrument” is a call to arms to end what the OIC refers to as “defamation of religions.” It has been adopted by UN Human Rights Council resolutions and by the General Assembly. Only the US and the EU have resisted endorsement of it.
And it is not some fiction developed by Islamophobes who fear their cultural values being attacked. As the OIC’s 2009 Second Observatory Report on Islamophobia suggests, it is an open work-in-progress: “The perceived threat to freedom of expression on the part of the US, the EU and other concerned countries constitutes an obstacle that can only be removed through sustained and constructive engagement.”
In Spencer’s case, which as his attorney I sought to resolve on his behalf, the threat to freedom of expression is not merely perceived, but is repugnantly demonstrably real, just as it is in the case of Joe Kaufman, a writer for FPM sued by various Islamic groups in Texas for defamation, a case that is testing the power of the OIC’s “legal instrument” as the groups petition the Texas Supreme Court to overrule the lower court ruling in Kaufman’s favor.
In the end, ALA not only failed to protect Spencer’s intellectual freedom, it went out of its way to suppress it, showing complete indifference to either the principle of intellectual freedom or the potential damage to its own reputation, even knowing that this dirty episode would be publicly aired.
As ALA’s attorney, Goedert, made sure to point out to me (as though I were a first year law student), this isn’t a case of free speech under the First Amendment, because ALA is not a government actor. As a private institution, the First Amendment has no power over it; ALA can censor whomever it chooses. Goedart’s unapologetic statement impressed me as somewhat breathtaking. I can’t think of a more embarrassing and shameful example of hypocrisy and moral apathy by an institution that holds itself out as a champion of free speech.
Given the amount at stake and the limited reach of the panel discussion’s influence, Spencer’s ordeal would be perhaps unsettling but inconsequential if it didn’t involve the ALA, founded in 1876 in Philadelphia, and whose members consist of America’s librarians, some of our most cherished guardians of free expression.
And it would be perhaps unsettling but inconsequential if it did not involve Robert Spencer, the target of frequent death threats due to his candid and authoritative views on Islam and the Koran, making him the Salman Rushdie of our time.
It might even be called unsettling but inconsequential if the cowards who withdrew from the panel discussion were not so hostile to American values and did not have a battle plan to shred the First Amendment.
As this article was being written, World Net Daily reported that radio host Michael Savage’s invitation to an October 15 debate via video hook-up to Cambridge University was cancelled one week before it was scheduled. Savage was to have argued against political correctness. As Bruce Chapman, president of the Discovery Institute think tank, has explained opponents of intelligent design theory, “They don’t allow a debate; they try to stop it and the reason they try to stop it is because they don’t think they can win it.”
That may be one probable explanation for the reaction by ALA to Spencer’s appearance. But it is also likely that his case represents a broadside attack on freedom of speech and intellectual freedom waged by Islamic apologists and abetted by America’s liberal elite establishment. The cancellation of Spencer’s appearance based on ALA’s silent acquiescence to outside pressure from those who seek to destroy intellectual freedom isn’t inconsequential, and it is more than unsettling. This is, as Spencer has characterized it, a stealth jihad against free speech, which now claims the American Library Association among the jihadists.