From the Bookshelves to the Barricades

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Since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the government has instituted several laws that have become more invasive of private life, including the reading and viewing habits of Americans. As a result, public libraries have been asked to comply with FBI or other government agency requests about patron information. In 2005 the National Security Agency demanded patron records from four Connecticut librarians. In addition, these librarians were issued a “gag order,” prohibiting them from speaking about this issue, even with their own families. In 2007 residents tried to prevent a library in Cheshire, Connecticut from shelving a book about a gruesome murder that took place in that town. In 2011 another Connecticut library was pressured to cancel a showing of Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” a provocative film about the US health care industry. As these three examples show, free speech is not so alive and well. Nevertheless, as this article will also show, these three public libraries (and their librarians) fought to keep or show controversial media or literature, along with fighting the US Government to maintain library patron confidentiality. If these examples show how free speech in the United States is under assault in the twenty-first century, it also shows how the public library has come to be the first line of defense for one of our most cherished values.