Boy, I seem to be all about praising librarians this week. Monday night, I'm talking up Augie librarians' speaker, Rick Steves; now, I find myself extolling Brookings Public Library Director Elvita Landau as the most calm and sane voice in the recent hubbub over Alison Weir's South Dakota speaking tour, which includes a stop tonight (Wednesday) at 7 p.m. at Landau's venerable institution:
The [Brookings Public Library] is not being drawn unwillingly into controversy. Library director Elvita Landeau [sic] said the library does not endorse Weir’s position, and “they are using our meeting room within our meeting policy. There is no charge for admission and no selling of commercial materials” [Peter Harriman, "Speech Critical of Israel Will Go On," That Sioux Falls Paper, 2013/09/23]
To understand why I so welcome Landau's response, which straightforwardly lacks any hemming and hawing and is similarly devoid of huffing and puffing, perhaps some background is in order.
Alison Weir is the founder of If Americans Knew, President of the Council for the National Interest, and (if affiliations with those two organizations don't already indicate this fact) an intense critic of Israel and of United States support of Israel. Her controversial critiques range widely from the broad (that U.S. aid to Israel is both disproportionate in terms of our national interest and dangerous in the way it connects us to one of the world's oldest conflicts) to the specific but disputed (that atrocities committed by Israelis against Palestinians include organ harvesting) to the media-conspiracy-theorist (that American media unquestioningly and/or deliberately mislead the news audience about the situation in the Middle East).
Weir is currently in South Dakota. She spoke at the Sioux Falls' Downtown Rotary Club luncheon Monday, chatted with Patrick Lalley that afternoon on the online "100 Eyes" program, and has plans to speak at USD, in addition to the aforementioned event at the Brookings Public Library Wednesday, before a Democratic Forum speech at week's end.
And those events have some people really riled up! Dan Lederman draws his own very clear line for free speech protection (that probably doesn't match up completely with the Constitutionally defined one) and makes equally clear that he thinks Weir has crossed it. South Dakota War College pulls out some inflammatory Weir quotes, mixes them with character assaults from organizations one would expect to disagree with Weir, and uses the resulting muddy rhetoric for the basic purpose of smearing Jim Abourezk (who helped set up Weir's statewide events) and anyone willing to give Weir a lectern.
While these and other commenters bluster, one of Weir's original sponsors, the South Dakota World Affairs Council, saw more fit to equivocate in the face of the resulting controversy. Citing the Council's mission to present issues in a balanced way, Nels Granholm, board chairman for the SDWAC, said they couldn't go forward as an event sponsor:
The council’s decision to cancel her was made knowing it might appear to stifle the free exchange of ideas, acknowledged board chairman Nels Granholm, who also heads the South Dakota State University Global Studies Program.
A fear that canceling Weir’s appearance could be construed as censorship “was in the background” as world affairs council officials made their decision, Granholm admitted. But he added, “The primary thing we keep going back to is we thought it was extremely important, essential, that we be able to present all the views, all the sides.”
The council knew from the outset it wanted to present such a counter to Weir’s claims.
“We simply didn’t have the time or the resources to do it,” Granholm said [Peter Harriman, That Sioux Falls Paper, 2013/09/23].
I'm ready to take Nels at his word that the yanked sponsorship was just an issue of belatedly realizing the Council couldn't meet its initial goal, not the outright capitulation Abourezk suggests. I also know from having sparred in debates during two undergraduate colloquium classes with him that Nels is not inherently one to shy away from controversy. Still, I'm disappointed that the fear of acting as censors wasn't somewhere other than in the background, that there wasn't more effort to take substantive action that would avoid even the appearance that Weir's voice was being stifled.
Because here's the thing: to uphold the free speech ideals we espouse as a society, we need to hear Weir. We don't need to agree with her; we don't need to let her get away with lying; we don't need to keep our mouths shut out of Midwestern politeness if she spouts hurtful rhetoric that truly crosses the line into hate speech. But we do need to provide her with the freedom to share her perspective, and we also need to provide the opportunity for any opposing perspectives to be heard. If those opposing perspectives interact on the same dais at the same event, that's wonderful, and I think that's the ideal the SDWAC was aiming for. But the interaction of ideas that moves us toward understanding, agreement, and truth can also take place, if we allow it to, as people react to coverage of Weir's speaking engagements, as they sift through her articles to look at the sources for themselves, as they comment thoughtfully and publicly on blog posts like this one. We can do our part to live up to the SDWAC's ideal if we seek to engage in our everyday community, rather than only in the Brookings Public Library's meeting room at an appointed hour with an appointed speaker.
But I'm glad that there will still be that opportunity for structured engagement at an appointed time and place. Though the ideas shared in public in our society may well be highly contested, the existence of a wide-open public forum shouldn't be even a little bit controversial. Elvita Landau's matter-of-fact description of Wednesday night's reservation at the Brookings Public Library seems to acknowledge that.
Yep, some folks are having an event at the Brookings Public Library.
Everyone's welcome. They won't be charging admission, and they won't try to make you purchase anything.
The reservation doesn't come with any official endorsement. It's just a lecture; things like that happen at the library all the time.
As well they should.