Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Case of the Locker Librarian
(8/9/2009)

An inquiry to “Yahoo Questions” site raised an interesting ethical question, and, as usual, it’s not as easy to answer as the positive reaction it elicited from most readers would suggest.

A teenager attending a Catholic school that apparently bans more books than Cotton Mather lended a succession of the banned books that he owned to fellow students. Gradually the collection grew, and now he’s running a full-fledged banned-book lending library out of his school locker. He asked the Yahoo site if what he was doing was wrong. Among the books in his “library” are “The Canterbury Tales,” “Candide,” “Paradise Lost,” “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court,” and “Animal Farm,” as well lesser classics such as “The Godfather,” “The Da Vinci Code,” “Harry Potter,” and that favorite of book-banners, “Catcher in the Rye,” plus, he says, many, many others. (They apparently have very large lockers in this school.) “I think it's the right thing to do because before I started, almost no kid at school but myself took an active interest in reading!”, the student wrote in his post to Yahoo. “Now not only are all the kids reading the banned books, but go out of their way to read anything they can get their hands on.”

Naturally, virtually everybody who responded to the inquiry had the same reaction, which can be summarized in Sixties-speak as “Right on!” Most of us deplore book-banning as a general proposition, and when the banned list contains the works of Chaucer, Milton, Voltaire, Mark Twain and Darwin among others, we can quickly find the school doing the censoring guilty of over-protectiveness, narrow-mindedness and worst of all bad taste in books. It is also natural to want to cheer on this young champion of literature, who is risking punishment (not to mention being crushed under an avalanche of books if he opens his locker too fast) to enrich his friends’ minds.

But would the cheering be as loud and enthusiastic if the banned literature he was distributing consisted of the complete works of the Marquis De Sade, white supremacy propaganda, and Hustler Magazine? Presumably not. We would look at the student’s rebellion as a sinister effort to undermine the very same values it is a school’s obligation to teach. Not only would that student be defying the school’s legitimate authority, but presumably the authority of its students’ parents.

“Wait a minute,” you may say, “That’s changing the question! Banning sado-masochistic trash and hate-literature is completely different from banning immortal classics like ‘Candide.’”

Really? The Supreme Court of the U.S. makes no such distinction in principle: all of the these, from Milton to Dan Brown, from Darwin to Larry Flynt, are protected by the First Amendment, which decrees that speech is speech, and can’t be restricted by the government. Beyond that, all distinctions about what is or is not appropriate, healthy or “good” for children to read are left up to parents, communities and schools, who are presumably better equipped to decide, by virtue of their advanced age and superior experience, than children. While you and I think may think that Chaucer is brilliant ( actually, I can’t stand Chaucer) and Darwin is essential, the school obviously disagrees, and the parents of the students have determined that the school should decide what is good for their kids to read. I would be out of line completely---wouldn’t I?---if I went to the school and surreptitiously smuggled banned books to the students because I decided I was right about the value of “The Da Vinci Code” and the school was wrong. Does the student who is running the library out of his locker have any more justification or legitimate authority than I would? I can’t see how.

The student, I have to conclude, is doing a brave and in many ways admirable thing in an unethical manner. Running the library from his locker undermines legitimate school policy and exposes other teens to material that their parents and school don’t want them to acquire in school. The only way his locker-library can pass ethical muster is for the student to perform the service as a form of civil disobedience, as an open protest against the school’s overly restrictive book policies. That, however, would require him to be blatant in his defiance, guaranteeing a short life for the library, significant punishment for him, and no much improvement in his friends’ reading options.

These objections and problems vanish if he lends the books to friends on his own time, outside the school. Even a school can’t decree what a student may choose to read when the homework is through and the weekend arrives. Then the authority of what a teen may read or not read passes to the teen’s family, and the responsibility for obeying limits passes to the amateur librarian’s “card holders.” Even then, the young book collector probably has an ethical obligation to let his own parents know about his lending activities.

I’m not especially happy with this verdict. I could easily see the saga of this student’s single-handed fight for intellectual freedom becoming an uplifting Disney movie or an “ABC After-School Special,” and I have to work to stifle a cheer for him myself. When you accomplish good things by breaking ethical principles, utilitarian principles are there to encourage you, chanting, “Trade-off! Trade-off!” But this is one of those cases that fails Kant’s Universal Principle test spectacularly: we cannot declare that it is right for minors to aggressively undermine school policies they disagree with, and we don’t have standing to decide conclusively that this school’s policies are objectively wrong, though I am confident that they are.

Maybe I should write and ask Yahoo...

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