1 Information Ethics Dilemma: Case Scenario Loose Handcuffs By: Mary Kramer, Linda Mahon, Staci Novak, Amber Ovsak

and Deedra Totten
“Ethics brings the discipline of thinking to the moral life so that we can figure out what to do when our instincts become overloaded.” - Richard J. Severson, The Principles of Information Ethics

Background The American Library Association (ALA) adopted a Code of Ethics in 1997 to help members of the information profession make guided ethical decisions, as well as provide the public with an idea of the principles that guide the profession. In regard to minors and their right to freely receive information in libraries, the Code of Ethics does not explicitly address this issue but in a more generalized principle states: “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.” Also, addressing censorship in libraries it states: “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources” (ALA, 2008). In addition to the Code of Ethics, the ALA had previously created the Library Bill of Rights to describe the policies that should be the guidelines of service in all libraries. Article V states: “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views” (ALA, 1996).

Supreme Court Cases Beyond the ALA’s Code of Ethics and Bill of Rights, there is a deeper issue of restricting access to information to minors. Some people believe this is a violation of their First Amendment rights. Several cases have been taken to the Supreme Court for this reason. In one

2 of the most notable cases, a seventeen-year-old high school student named Steven Pico and four other teens disagreed with the School Board’s decision to pull several books from the library’s shelves due to their belief that they were inappropriate for student access. Pico and his classmates filed a lawsuit against the School Board, and it subsequently made its way to the United States Supreme Court where the students won (Crutcher, n.d.). The Court stated that “the right to receive ideas is a necessary predicate to the recipient’s meaningful exercise of his own rights of speech, press, and political freedom,” and that “students too are beneficiaries of this principle” (Chmara and Mach, 2004, “Minors’ Rights to Receive Information Under the First Amendment,” para. 4). More recently similar cases have resulted in the same outcome.

Case Study Katie Sue is a fifteen-year-old freshman at Cedar Point High School. She is a good student, smart, and an overall nice young lady. Katie Sue also participates in after school clubs and loves to read. She comes from a well-to-do family in Cedar City, Kansas, where her father is a prominent businessman. Her mother is a member of the school board and both of her parents are very involved in the community. They are also very involved parents. Everyday when Katie Sue comes home, they ask her about her school day and her school work. Three or four times a week, Katie Sue goes to her high school library to check out books. One particular day while she was browsing, she noticed a new book on the shelves. It was called Loose Handcuffs by Christina Crutcherson. She read the excerpt, “Paige, a high school senior, is the girl every girl wants to be and the girl every guy wants to be with. Michael, also a high school senior, is the complete opposite. He is a troubled loner with a dark past. After a chance meeting, they realize they share the same detrimental secrets.” After reading the excerpt, she

3 decided she would check it out. When she took it to the librarian, Mrs. Kotman, Katie Sue asked if she had read it. Mrs. Kotman replied that she hadn’t, but had read a number of good reviews and thought it would be a good book to have in their library. That night after eating dinner with her family and doing her homework, Katie Sue decided to get started on her new book. She was particularly excited because it was a novel about a fifteen-year-old living in a small town, just like her! When she was halfway through the book, her mother came into the living room. “Whatcha reading, sweetie?” her mother asked as she sat down beside her daughter. “Oh, just a new book I found. It’s really good.” Katie Sue responded. “Mind if I take a look?” her mother asked. “Sure.” she said. As her mother began flipping through the novel, she was horrified. “Katie Sue, there is profanity and references to sex in this book! Where did you get this from?” Her daughter gave her a weird look, “Um, at the school library.” “This is ridiculous,” her mother replied. “There is no way a freshman in high school should be reading this elicit of a novel. I’m going to have a talk with your school librarian.” The next day, Katie Sue’s parents went to the librarian. “Why was our daughter allowed to check out this book? It is extremely inappropriate for a girl her age.” “I’m sorry Mr. and Mrs. Plant, but we do not tell the students what they can and cannot checkout. If it is in our library, they are allowed to check it out.” said Mrs. Kotman. “You mean to tell me, replied Mr. Plant, that there is no rating system for the books in this library? Why, they should be rated just like movies and music! I demand that this be done.” “And that’s not all, continued Mrs. Plant. “We want a list of every book in this library that has similar content to Loose Handcuffs, the novel our daughter checked out yesterday.”

4 The librarian, Mrs. Kotman, felt a very strong ethical dilemma. She wanted to keep Katie Sue’s best interest in mind, but also felt extremely pressured by the parents. While weighing her options, she remembered the ALA Library Bill of Rights. The ALA has a policy called Free Access to Libraries for Minors that plainly affirms that materials in a library cannot be limited to the age of the person wishing to check them out. After this realization, Mrs. Kotman knew what she had to do.

Questions for Ethics Case Study 1. Which of Severson’s ethical principles are relevant to this case? 2. How does Severson’s ethical principle of respect for privacy pertain to this situation? 3. Is it fair to censor certain books from an entire school population because of one family’s disapproval? 4. Does the suggestion of a rating system of books present an ethical dilemma for the librarian and school? How might this affect the circulation of books of information? 5. Who has the moral edge in this situation? 6. How can we apply the following four questions posed by Ann Martin, past president of AASL (2008-2009), to this particular situation?     Is it appropriate for a parent to complain about material in the library? What action should be taken when a complaint about library material is made? Does the library have a policy in place with specific procedures to implement should a concern be expressed? How might the library staff help to prevent students from choosing materials that are too mature for them? (Martin, 2009, p. 7)

Do these questions broaden or deepen this ethical dilemma for the school media specialist? 7. What are some different ways of getting around the issue of censorship in libraries?


References American Library Association. (2008). Code of ethics of the American Library Association. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aboutala/offices/oif/statementspols/codeofethics/codeethics.cfm American Library Association. (2009). Library Bill of Rights. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/statementspols/statementsif /librarybillrights.cfm Case, D. O. (2007). Looking for information: A survey of research on information seeking, needs, and behavior (2nd ed.). Amsterdam: Elsevier. Chmara, T. & Mach, D. (2004). Minor’s rights to receive information under the First Amendment. Retrieved from http://www/ala.org/aboutala/offices/oif/ifissues.issuesrelatedlinks/minorsrights.cfm Crutcher, C. (n.d.). Board of Ed.vs. Pico: Five teens win the right to read Retrieved from http://www.chriscrutcher.com/content/blogcategory/60/49 Johns, S. K. (2007, November/December).Who's protecting whom? AASL and intellectual freedom. Knowledge Quest, 36(2), 4-6. Martin, A. (2009, January/February). Leadership: Integrity and the ALA Code of Ethics. Knowledge Quest. 37(3), 6-11. Rubin, R. E. (2004). Foundations of library and information science (2nd ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman.

6 Severson, R. (1997). The principles of information ethics. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. Simpson, C. (2004, October) Should I or shouldn’t I: An ethical conundrum. Library Media Connection, 23(2), 18-21. Thomas, N. (2004). Information literacy and information skills instruction: Applying research to practice in the school media center. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Further Reading American Library Association. (2009). Free access to libraries for minors. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/statementspols/statementsif/interpretations/ freeaccesslibraries.cfm American Library Association. (2009). Labeling and rating systems: An interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. Retrieved from rg/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/statementspols/statementsif/interpretations/Labeling_and_Rati ng_.pdf Pattee, A. (2007, January). Rethinking "racy reads": A library educator takes on the labeling issue. School Library Journal, 53(1). Retrieved from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/ article/CA6403267.html

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