In the U.S., we celebrate the National Freedom of Information Day on or near James Madison’s birthday, March 16. Madison, one of the founding fathers of the United States and contributing author to the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, advocated for openness in government. He believed that members of the public have the right to know about governmental activities.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. U.S. citizens and residents have had these rights since 1791 when the first 10 amendments were ratified. The Freedom of Information Act, established in 1967, enables citizens to request information from federal agencies. According to the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy, federal agencies are required to post certain information online proactively. The freedoms of access to governmental information, speech, and the press are precious rights worth protecting.
Censorship is the process of suppressing ideas. Citizens of some countries experience censorship due to governmental control of the media. For example, Hungary recently shut down its last independent radio station. Some countries censor or block access to information on the internet, restrict or block social media platforms, or restrict or ban the use of VPNs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some countries further limited people’s access to information and the freedom of the press. Library books are not publicly accessible in some places, and materials are banned by the government. In China, the Ministry of Education recently required libraries to remove “illegal” books .
The U.S. is not immune to censorship. U.S. libraries strive to provide free access to information, foster the exchange and exploration of ideas, and oppose censorship. According to the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, libraries should provide current and historic information that represents multiple viewpoints and addresses local interests and needs. Jennifer Steele’s recent history of censorship in the U.S. explores censorship of library materials about race, religion, ideology, and sexual identity. Steele also discusses movie and music recording ratings, federal regulation of internet pornography, and corporate moderation of social media. There is a fine line between protected speech and censorship.
According to Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, the First Amendment right to freedom of speech is complex. Bollinger noted that the decision not to censor ideas or the expression of those ideas invokes a responsibility to discuss opposing viewpoints. Bollinger explained that college students must “grapple with ideas, with thoughts and viewpoints” and that college prepares them “to deal with the world” and instills “habits of mind that…increase the odds that we will discover new ideas and truths.” Reading about and discussing new ideas requires having an open mind, suspending our beliefs, and questioning our assumptions.
Unfortunately, due to search algorithms, social media creates an echo chamber or filter bubble that reinforces existing ideas and reduces exposure to opposing ideas, also known as confirmation bias. Pew Research Center reported that these digital technologies raise concerns about “the interplay of trust, truth, and democracy.”
To celebrate the freedom of information, speech, and the press, you can:
- Learn more about your rights as a citizen or resident of the U.S.
- Listen to, read about, and discuss differing viewpoints.
- Read a variety of media sources rather only one source. (Learn more about journalism brands and explore Ad Fontes Media’s Media Bias Chart.)
- Support the freedom to read.
- Read banned books such as those on the American Library Association’s list of Banned & Challenged Classics.
At CMU Libraries, we strive to provide access to a wide range of scholarly ideas written by a wide range of authors. We welcome your suggestions of materials to add to our collection!