Right-wing zealots have been trying to censor books they find objectionable in public libraries. There have been headlines such as “Censorship battles’ New Frontier: Your Public Library”; “The American Library Association opposes widespread efforts to censor books in US Schools and libraries”; and “In a lawsuit, a group of Texas Library patrons says a book ban amounts to censorship.”
But libraries do more than lend books. They sponsor speakers. Now, at least one public library is banning a speaker based entirely on partisan and ideological factors. I’m not talking about a Drag Queen Story Hour getting cancelled. This time, a speaker is being banned by left-wing censors because, though a liberal all his life, he also once represented former President Donald Trump.
I wish I could write about this important free speech issue without getting personal. But the banned speaker is me and the library is my beloved local library in Chilmark, where I have spent nearly a half-century of long summers.
For years, I was the most popular speaker in a weekly series sponsored by my library, discussing subjects ranging from Thomas Jefferson to freedom of speech to Israel. The questions following my presentations would be contentious, intelligent and thought-provoking. But once I began opposing then-President Trump’s impeachment on the ground that he was not being charged with a constitutionally authorized offense, the library suddenly claimed that I was too popular and the crowds I attracted were too large.
So instead of simply limiting the audience, they decided not to invite me to give my usual annual lecture. Since that time, despite repeated requests by me and others, they have not permitted me to speak. More importantly, they have not permitted those residents of Chilmark who wanted to listen to my views to hear them at their library.
The claim that I attracted too large an audience was an obvious pretext. It reminds me of what Yogi Berra once said about a popular restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” If I had supported Trump’s impeachment, I would have been invited back every year.
Libraries are obviously allowed to exercise discretion, inviting who they wish. But in this case, my disinvitation was caused solely by the fact that I defended a president they didn’t like. The twice fact that I voted against him didn’t excuse my political sin.
To put this matter in a constitutional context, assume that a public, tax-supported small town Texas library decided to limit its speakers only to white supremacists or only to Trump supporters: Would such a restriction be constitutional? Wouldn’t liberals and leftists be up in arms about using taxpayer money to promote one point of view while censoring another? Of course they would. What if the library turned down a liberal speaker who wanted to oppose white supremacy on the ground that his audience would be too large? Would anyone take that claim seriously?
I love public libraries. Much of my high school education took place at the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch at Grand Army Plaza. I was honored several years ago by that library for my public support of libraries. When I spoke at the Chilmark library, I always praised it and contributed the proceeds from book sales to the library.
My family and friends in Chilmark do not want me to sue the library. “It’s too close to home,” says one. “It’s a local treasure,” says another. I understand these concerns, I also know that if the local library were in the hands of pro-Trump conservatives, these same people would be encouraging me to sue it.
I have always lived my life on the basis of important principles, including freedom of speech and due process. Should I not seek to apply those principles to my own public library? If I don’t, will the precedent be used to ban more liberal speakers in conservative parts of the country?
I can’t accept the double standard. I don’t want to sue my beloved library. I have offered the library several alternatives: limit the number of audience members; hold the event outdoors; have it in June or September when there are few people in Chilmark.
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Thus far, the library has not accepted any of these reasonable alternatives. They apparently don’t want to sponsor a speech by someone who defended the most hated man in Chilmark: Donald Trump.
The residents of Chilmark have a perfect right to disinvite me from parties, private concerts, and even fundraisers for the Jewish Democratic Council of America (as they recently did). But tax-supported public libraries are different. Their members have the right to listen to speakers they chose to hear.
Allowing the Chilmark library to select its speakers based on partisan considerations violates the spirit if not the letter of the First Amendment. It does not serve the interests of Chilmark residents who want to hear me. They may be few in number these days, but that only makes the excuse offered by the library even more absurd. The reality is that some prominent supporters of the library don’t want my views to be sponsored by their library. And they have been given a veto over points of view and speakers that offend them.
Recently a sign was posted in Oak Bluffs, another town on Martha’s Vineyard that read: “OB Welcomes Alan Dershowitz & FREE SPEECH.”
So maybe I will be invited to speak there.
I hope we can resolve this issue in a win-win fashion. I don’t want to sue the library, but I don’t want to allow a precedent to stand under which libraries get to decide which speakers their constituents should hear. The next step will be deciding which books their constituents can read based on partisan considerations rather than readers’ interests.
Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, emeritus, is host of the DerShow on Rumble and is the author most recently of “The Price of Principle: Why Integrity Is Worth the Cost.”