In Praise of Whistleblowers and #teamharpy

We need to speak up for people who speak out.

September 23, 2014

It’s banned book week. This is a time to look over a list of books that have been challenged and gasp. Seriously? How could that book hurt anyone? It’s good to reflect on how important it is to stand up for the availability of books that some find offensive, but we also need to also think about other threats to sharing information.

The current administration, led by a president I voted for, claims to be transparent yet is hostile to reporters. His record of going after whistleblowers and journalists who protect their sources is frightening. And it's not just the executive branch. The dysfunctional PACER system for public court records recently removed hundreds of them without warning, restoring them only after an outcry. This is a system that requires elaborate sign-up and charges access to public records by the page. Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide last year after being threatened with decades in prison for violating JSTORs terms of service (a prosecution JSTOR did not want carried out), had been investigated by the FBI for downloading documents from PACER and posting them online which turned out (oops!) to be perfectly legal. In an era when Big Brother has become unimaginably big - something we only know because Edward Snowden thought we needed to - we are seeing access to information threatened, and intimidation through the courts is a handy tool to accomplish that.

One thing the US does get right is the high bar we set for charges of libel. It’s a lot easier to use the courts to make people shut up in the UK and Canada because their laws favor plaintiffs in libel cases. If you wanted to change the contents of a book, bringing suit in England used to work swell, because publishers were more vulnerable and likely to cave, though in the past year some UK court rulings have made that less attractive. Suing librarians turns out to be a lot easier if they live in Canada. Dale Askey found this out when he took a job north of the border and a man sued him for criticizing his publishing company in a blog post written when Askey was a resident of the US. It should be okay for a librarian in the course of his or her duties to publicly express criticism of publishers. But in Askey’s case, it was grounds for a SLAPP suit, which is rough on Askey and chilling for other librarians who have professional reasons to share their evaluations of publishers.

A Canadian librarian, along with one who lives in the American Midwest, are being sued in Canada for $1.25 million by an American librarian named Joe Murphy, who I have never met but who is fairly well known as a conference speaker. He’s also well known because he’s one of those conference speakers who women warn one another about. This kind of thing surprises some people who can’t imagine that a female-dominated profession like mine has a harassment problem, but it does, and a lot of us got an education about how widespread it is when the American Library Association passed a code of conduct, which I support whole-heartedly. Lisa Rabey and nina de jesus are women who write publicly and speak their minds fearlessly. They put in writing (in a Tweet and in a blog post) stuff I’ve been hearing for quite some time. Now they are facing a massive lawsuit which they are handling bravely. I can’t imagine how stressful this is for them. What I can imagine all too well is that the chilling effect of this lawsuit. It’s never easy to confront men who harass women. It’s never easy to share such information, except perhaps in whispers. But we need to stand up for the right to do so without fear of being sued for a ridiculous amount of money.

I don’t know Joe Murphy and all I knew about him was his reputation, which the lawsuit claims has been damaged by Rabey and de jesus, even though that damage actually happened long before they put anything in writing. (And if you think we shouldn’t talk about this because he’s innocent until proven guilty, remember this is not a criminal case and he is not a defendant, as de jesus has so lucidly explained.) It could be that he has been unfairly maligned for the past few years. But in a profession that’s all about the value of sharing information and protecting access to multiple perspectives, this isn’t how you defend your reputation. You engage. You discuss. You listen. You try to figure stuff out. You don’t attempt to silence people with punitive legal actions. If you do, you are doing it wrong.

If you want to help #teamharpy, you can contribute financially, but what the two women need most of all is witnesses willing to speak up. This is a good time for us all to think about how we can discuss these issues publicly and productively and how we can have the backs of people who take big public risks on behalf of the rest of us.  


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