Friday, October 17, 2014

Censoring the Discussion of Censorship

If you can't burn books, you can at least control what is posted on faculty web sites, said to students in class, or written to them in emails.

I was in the library the other night and got one of those giggling fits you can get during a funeral—or in a library. I hope I didn’t disturb anyone. I was in the back of the main floor of the big Boston University library (Mugar Memorial Library) late one night and came upon a display about banned publications. The heading was “Freedom to Read” and the Mugar librarians (or whoever curated the display) had rounded up the usual suspects—from Huck Finn and Ulysses and Lady Chatterly’s Lover to The Hunger Games and many other well-known recent examples—to illustrate the horrors of banning books, essays, and ideas, and the inestimable loss to culture that inevitably results from limiting what people can think or say.

That’s what got me laughing. I thought back over all of the faculty members at Boston University who, even in the relatively brief time I have been teaching here, have been forced out or been administratively harassed because of something they wrote or said in a public lecture that a Boston University administrator didn’t agree with. I remembered the names of several faculty members in my own College and Department (the Boston University College of Communication and Department of Film and Television) whose lives had been made difficult or appointments had been terminated because a Boston University administrator disagreed with something they had published, or with the subject of a course they taught. And of course I also thought about my own situation in the past ten years or so—about how I have been screamed at and called names in meetings because of something I wrote or said in an interview, how I was told to remove my official faculty web site from the Boston University server in 2008, how university administrators made blackmail threats to try to muzzle the expression of my ideas (I was told the university would “bring in the lawyers” against me to destroy me financially and that university administrators would make an internet posting to destroy my professional reputation, if I didn’t agree to the censorship of my ideas). I thought back over numerous meetings and memos in which I have been told what I can and cannot say to students in class, what I can and cannot suggest that they read, what I can and cannot write in emails I send to them, and what I can and cannot say in interviews I give to journalists.

What got me laughing was the sudden realization of how much trouble a librarian would get into if any of those stories and examples had been included in the Mugar Library censorship exhibit—if the acts of censorship taking place right in their own backyard were ever talked about by a BU employee. It seems so comical to me that even a display about censorship itself has to be careful what it says and what examples it cites. An exhibit about censorship could never go that far—at least at Boston University—to actually discuss censorship at Boston University. Some things are just off-limits.

To read more about censorship at Boston University, see the headings under March 2013, particularly "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats" and "How Marketing and Branding Considerations Limit What Faculty Can Tell Students (or Suggest They Read)" and the links referred to on those pages.