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Zoia Horn, Outlaw Librarian
Celebrate National Library Week remembering a hero at the frontline in the fight for intellectual freedom
In 1971, the Harrisburg Seven, a group of religious anti-war activists led by Philip Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest, were charged with 23 counts of conspiracy. Among the accusations: a plot to kidnap Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and plans to bomb steam tunnels. For three months, the trial dominated national headlines. It unfolded with various twists and turns, and then veered in a completely unexpected direction when the judge sent a witness, librarian Zoia Horn, to jail for being in contempt of court.
She was the first U.S. librarian sent to jail as a matter of conscience. On principle, Horn refused to testify against library patrons.
The Harrisburg Seven
Horn became acquainted with the defendants when she served as chief reference librarian at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, where a government informer was planted to help spy on the Rev. Philip Berrigan. This informer implicated Horn and other library staff in the conspiracy. When called to the witness stand, Horn read from a written statement, “It is because I respect the function of this court to protect the rights of the individual that I must refuse to testify. I cannot in my conscience lend myself to this black charade…,” according to an article in Newsday.
The judge interrupted to warn Horn she would be in contempt if she refused to answer the prosecutor’s questions. He gave her until the end of the week to comply. But Horn didn’t need until the end of the week.
Outside the courthouse, she announced: “To me it stands on freedom of thought – but government spying in homes, in libraries and universities inhibits and destroys this freedom…It stands on freedom of speech – yet general discussions have been interpreted by the government as advocates of conspiracy.”
For the first time in North America, noted an article from The Daily Bulletin:
a librarian was jailed for protecting the intellectual freedom of others. Horn spent a full three weeks locked up, until the jury deadlocked and the judge was forced to call a mistrial. One juror stated ‘I thought the whole thing was kind of funny, the idea of a bunch of priests and nuns zipping off with Henry Kissinger.’
The case resulted in minor convictions for some of the defendants, however most of them were eventually overturned in appeals. But for Horn, a 53-year-old mother of two, this was the beginning of a crusade for intellectual freedom.
Continued activism in the ‘70s and ‘80s
Following the trial, Horn discovered many of her career options suddenly dried up. Now living in California, she was a known controversial figure. Top-level jobs at public and college libraries were no longer available to her.
But Horn remained undaunted.
The American Library Association declared during the trial that it could not support Horn’s position, but afterward came to praise her staunch commitment to the freedom of thought and speech. In 1974, Horn was elected to the ALA Council; in 1977 she received an appointment to the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee.
As the Cold War wound down, the FBI launched the Library Awareness Program, geared to protect the U.S. against Russian spies. The Philadelphia Inquirer described it as “a little known initiative…asking librarians to help combat what [the FBI] calls a substantial threat from ‘hostile foreign intelligence’ officers who use libraries as their staging grounds.”
“For not only FBI agents, but police, Secret Service and Treasury Department agents routinely ask librarians to check out more than books,” the article elaborated. “And no one, librarians say, should be reading over the public's shoulder.”
One librarian, in particular, was unable to tolerate practices that could hinder patrons’ rights to intellectual freedom and privacy. Horn spoke out, loud and clear: "To have what is equivalent to Big Brother and the Thought Police as a presence in the library is just not permissible in this country,"
"The library is a sacrosanct place, and the FBI has no business there," she insisted. "It undermines the very thing that the government is supposed to support, which is freedom of thought and speech and public debate. Librarians cannot accept the role of informants."
The ALA and activist librarians like Horn effectively fought against the Library Awareness Program, unaware that they were gearing up for an even bigger battle on the horizon.
The Patriot Act
In October 2001, with almost no discussion, Congress passed sweeping legislation to strengthen security controls. Among the myriad sections of the law that civil libertarians deemed unconstitutional, section 215 was of special concern to librarians. According to Progressive Librarian, this part of the law:
specifically grants the government the right to obtain library and bookstore records in secret without proving that a crime has been committed. Librarians presented with such a warrant under PATRIOT are forbidden to discuss it with anyone except a lawyer. The librarian is forbidden to discuss it with the patron whose records may be sought despite the fact that the patron may have committed no crime, or even be suspected of committing a crime.
This means a librarian could be served with a warrant and forced to surrender records of the patron's book borrowing or Internet use – and be prohibited from revealing the search to anyone, including the patron.
By now, Horn was a retired octogenarian. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, she criticized the law for not requiring any evidence of wrong-doing by the target of an investigation, or that a target of investigation be involved in a crime. Horn firmly urged librarians to resist the Patriot Act.
“They have (another) option,” she said. “The option I took, to say: this is not appropriate, this is not ethical in the library profession. It undermines the very essence of what a publically supported library is.”
The ALA ultimately agreed with Horn’s take. In 2003, after much deliberation, the ALA passed a resolution opposing this section of the law in accordance with their Intellectual Freedom Manual:
Intellectual freedom implies a circle, and that circle is broken if either freedom of expression or access to ideas is stifled. Librarians have [therefore] taken upon themselves the responsibility to provide, through their institutions, all points of view on all questions and issues of our times and to make these ideas and opinions available to anyone who needs or wants them, regardless of age, background, or views.
According to Progressive Librarian “it was activist librarians who led the way in this work, librarians who feel compelled to defend the Bill of Rights and to advocate against the passage of legislation that erodes our freedoms in the name of protecting them from terrorists.”
Linn, A. (1988, Feb 23). FBI ASKS LIBRARIANS TO HELP IN THE SEARCH FOR SPIES. Philadelphia Inquirer.
Selby, M. (2013, Mar 07). Standing up for intellectual freedom. Daily Bulletin. pp. 7.
Sparanese, A. (2003). ACTIVIST LIBRARIANSHIP: HERITAGE OR HERESY? Progressive Librarian, (22), 38.
Lewis, Alison. Questioning Library Neutrality, edited by Alison Lewis, Library Juice Press, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Magi, Trina, and Martin Garnar. History of ALA Policy on Intellectual Freedom, edited by Trina Magi, and Martin Garnar, American Library Association, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Preer, Jean. Library Ethics, edited by Jean Preer, ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central.
American, Library Association, Office for Intellectual Freedom. Intellectual Freedom Manual, edited by Library Association, Office for Intellectual Freedom American, ALA Editions, 2004. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Image: By Peter Brantley from El Cerrito (Zoia Horn) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons