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On this blog I am very critical of what I see as a hegemonic view of intellectual freedom, a view which arises out of a mainly unquestioned liberal perspective. My main criticism is that this view employs an abstract value - “freedom” - divorced from social, political, and material realities in an attempt to intervene in real social, political, and material relationships and processes. As a Marxist, I believe such a separation is impossible in practice, and that promotion of an abstract or neutral conception of freedom merely serves to hide or obscure underlying - often unconscious - social and political values, allegiances, and ideologies.

But for the sake of argument, what I want to do here is to interrogate the principle of intellectual freedom not from a Marxist, but from a liberal perspective. To begin with, we should look at the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights definition of intellectual freedom, which is the definition adopted by, for example, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations and the ALA. Article 19 of of the Human Rights Declaration states that:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This article conflates what are sometimes thought of as two separate rights: intellectual freedom per se, and freedom of expression. It also suggests that opinions can somehow be held “without interference” (is education interference?), and that the only significant obstacles to access to information are media and frontiers. The article does not recognize the social provenance of opinions (perhaps drawing on a Lockean theory of the human mind as a blank slate), nor does it recognize the social nature of information access, except with regard to media and borders.

But what I find most interesting here is that information freedom is presented here as what Isaiah Berlin calls a “positive liberty”, the freedom to do something. In “Two Concepts of Liberty”, a landmark text which has been very influential in liberal thinking around rights and liberties, Berlin distinguishes between positive and negative liberties, and defines negative liberty as follows:

If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. (…) The criterion of oppression is the part that I believe to be played by other human beings, directly or indirectly, with or without the intention of doing so, in frustrating my wishes. By being free in this sense I mean not being interfered with by others. The wider the area of noninterference the wider my freedom.

On the other hand, Berlin defines the positive conception of liberty as follows:

The ‘positive’ sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside.

The positive conception of liberty, then, is clearly predicated on the usual methodological individualism of liberal political theory: that the world is made up of rational individuals who decide for themselves how to act without reference to to any other person or cause.

Leaving aside the Marxist critique of this position - that human beings are born into a pre-existing society, a set of social relations, a culture, and an ideology - what is interesting here is that the methodological individualism requires that we take no notice of the effect of our actions on other people. Berlin talks about the corruption of both these conceptions of liberty, if we start to imagine that our rationality and our capacity to decide and to act is done in the name of other people, or done in the belief of the irrationality, ignorance, or impotence of others. It is clearly this risk that article 19 it meant to mitigate, and the history of intellectual freedom in libraries is the history of attempting to protect the rights of others in the face of encroachment (possibly with the best intentions) on the part of the state, concerned parents, etc. This is the same reason why “Freedom to Read” week is almost exclusively focused on book challenges.

What gets ignored here - and this is due again to liberalism’s individualistic ontology - is the fact that the exercise of a right does not exist in a vacuum. There are social consequences to every action, no matter how rational and “individual”. So the positive exercise of “freedom to hold and express an opinion” automatically comes up against a negative freedom, the freedom from being exposed to toxic, dehumanizing views. This freedom is not enshrined in the Human Rights Declaration - it may be a liberty we can conceive of, but it is not entrenched in legislation as a right under article 19.

However, if we define negative liberty as freedom from discrimination - a modern spin on Berlin’s coercion, but not, I think, an unwarranted one, then Article 7 of the HRD does offer such a protection, reframed as a positive right:

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

When the ALA explicitly inserted “hate groups” into their room booking interpretation last year, they argued that this was in order to make public library systems compliant with the first amendment. It was framed as a freedom of expression decision (article 19), but it explicitly contravened article 7 (hate groups, by definition, discriminate or incite to discriminate).

From a liberal point of view, all this requires is a sense of balance, a respect for toleration. “Neutral” libraries are expected to take an objective stance balancing freedom from discrimination with freedom to express even the most heinous of opinions. But notice how article 19 refers only to opinions, information, and ideas. Again, liberalism since the time of Descartes, maintains a strict division between the mind and the body, ideas and the real world. This Cartesian dualism forms part of what Antonio Negri has called the “reasonable ideology” of the bourgeoisie. From the liberal perspective, ideas and opinions can (and must) be defended without limitation because they quite literally do not affect the outside world. The liberal view of intellectual freedom, then, is quite powerless, quite ineffective, at a total loss when faced with very real consequences of opinions and ideas in the real world. Liberal philosophy can make no connection between white-supremacist ideas and the murder of Black people; between the denial of climate science and the approaching climate catastrophe; between transmisic opinions and the suicide of trans people. The liberal conception of intellectual freedom is inadequate to a world in which ideas have real consequences; it is inadequate for the real world itself. It is this inability that explains why libraries and organizations like the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom keep making the same kinds of mistakes.

Article 7 gives libraries a way to protect our staff and users from particular opinions, ideas, and speech. If we are going to rely on the HRD for article 19, then it is legitimate to lean just as heavily on article 7. However, this would require abandoning the liberal perspective on “freedom”, “neutrality”, and the strict division between thoughts and consequences. It would require abandoning methodological individualism and committing to something like the IWW motto, “an injury to one is an injury to all”.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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