Chris Crutcher Inspired Me to be An Intellectual Freedom Activist for Teens

I had only been a school librarian for a few years when a school in a neighboring county had a high profile materials challenge involving Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk. Area libraries and Crutcher responded by planning some related events coinciding with the 2005 Banned Books Week, and his stops included our local public library. When one of my teachers saw the promotional poster I’d created for Crutcher’s speech, she echoed my belief that limiting access to anything sets a dangerous precedent. We were both eager to capitalize on the opportunity for her students to hear the renowned author and re-imagined her twelfth grade research paper as case studies in censorship.

Chris Crutcher (2005)

The project was successful beyond our wildest expectations in engaging students intellectually and promoting conversation about fundamental rights. Though the event with Crutcher was remote from campus and held in the evening, the majority of the class attended the lecture. He was gracious enough to pose with our students afterwards (above). Crutcher’s talk that night made me understand the needs of young people to see their experiences reflected in literature. As he spoke about his background as a family therapist and the many ways in which his books reflect the lived experience of young people and offer support for those who needed it, it galvanized my belief in intellectual freedom as a fundamental aspect of youth services.

Everyone who has worked as a conduit between young people and reading materials is likely to have experienced some trepidation over the spectrum of attitudes related to age-appropriateness of content. The U.S. Supreme Court has validated student’s First Amendment rights to non-disruptive political expression in school settings, but when the issues involves receiving information, what is the responsibility of the library in loco parentis? As ALA’s annual Banned Books lists attest, most challenges to library materials are instigated by parents and most usually motivated by a sincere desire to protect their children.

What freedom do dependent minors really possess to read and access the library materials they want? And why is that right so important to adolescent growth and development? On May 26, 2016, at 2:00 pm, the Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) and ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom will offer a joint webinar on Intellectual Freedom and Minors featuring Crutcher and FTRF General Counsel Theresa Chmara as speakers. They plan to explore how the rights of young people can be both protected and respected, as well as the rights of parents, teachers, and library staff who are concerned about access to age-appropriate materials. The webinar is free to FTRF members.

I know I am looking forward to hearing Crutcher again on this topic. It might provide some signposts for youth services librarians grappling with or honing their own commitments to intellectual freedom.

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