Commentary: The freedom to read, the First Amendment, and libraries as a cornerstone of democracy


“The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack.” – Freedom to Read 

If you have never read the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read statement, it is worth your time to read this powerful document. Published in 1953, eight years after the end of World War II, the statement feels timeless, as if it were written today, taken directly from recent headlines about banning books and defunding libraries. 

The Freedom to Read statement serves as a foundational document for library work. Public libraries provide access to content for all without prejudicial judgment or labeling. As libraries uphold confidentiality and access to materials, we are upholding your rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Timberland Regional Library’s Board of Trustees initially adopted the Freedom to Read Statement in 1972 and its most current version in 2015. 

The opening line of the statement sets a clear point: “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy.” The next line underscores that achieving democracy is not easy: “It is continuously under attack.” When a government allows freedom of expression, people may determine their own interests and form their own understanding without government control. The ability to freely choose what to read is unique to democratic societies. It is key to an educated public. It is key to freedom and to reaching the highest ideals set forth under the Constitution, specifically the First Amendment. There is a reason why this is the very first amendment to our country’s Constitution. It is that important. 

Recently, Timberland Regional Library received a request to adopt a policy for labeling all books in the collection. This request calls for someone to rate books using the same rating system as films. Libraries already place materials in age-appropriate categories inside the library and in online catalogs. Under the guise of protecting children, book rating systems are a tool for censorship. They suggest that broad access to a variety of viewpoints and topics should be restricted based on the subjective opinions of appropriateness. 

What we know about the coordinated groups proposing labeling systems or outright bans is they are purposefully stigmatizing works that address the lives and experiences of people outside of areas considered “appropriate.” The proposed rating system is intended to bias or prejudice attitudes or decisions about reading materials. Besides banning or labeling books, libraries in our state and across the nation are now struggling against being defunded. All because libraries carry titles a group finds objectionable to their own personal beliefs. Instead of letting others choose what is appropriate for their own reading, they seek to deny individuals their First Amendment rights. This goes against the very idea of libraries and of democracy itself.   

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Freedom to Read statement. It is as relevant now as it was in the 1950s. It is our hope that you will continue to support this most fundamental of all rights. 

Celebrate Banned Books Week by speaking up for the freedom to read and remember free people read freely. 


Andrea Heisel is the director of content and access for Timberland Regional Library.