Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


Member Area

by Pat Holt

Friday, March 29, 2002


[Send a link to this column to a friend]




Not a lot of news coverage is being given to the landmark lawsuit that began Monday in which the American Library Association is challenging the constitutionality of the Children's Internet Protection Act of 2000 (CIPA).

This important if not historic case is being heard by a panel of three judges in federal court in Philadelphia. The losing side will probably appeal and likely bring it to the Supreme Court.

What a bind librarians find themselves in. CIPA requires that libraries receiving federal grants for certain kinds of technology must install "filters" that block out pornography on Internet-connecting computers in the library. If librarians don't comply by July, they lose this crucial federal funding. Meanwhile, they argue, CIPA "puts unconstitutional restraints on free speech," and boy, are they right.

We know from previous columns (#226) and new information (Marjorie Heins, executive director of the Free Expression Policy Project in New York, who writes on AlterNet.org) that "filter" software doesn't work. For example:

  • The town of Essex, Maryland, has been blocked from inquiries on the Internet because filter software has detected the word "sex" in the town name.

  • House Majority Leader Richard "Dick" Armey's official website has been blocked by filters because of the word "dick."

  • Filters have erased the words "sex," "breast" and "pussy" (thus the filter X-Stop's blocking of "pussy willow" searches)

  • "Students have also written to express their frustration," according to Heins. "Among their research topics rendered virtually impossible by many filters are school violence, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, AIDS, mental illnesses, and - in one case, the asexual reproduction of mushrooms."

Well, mushrooms are pretty subversive.

It's all ridiculous, but the point is that even if these filters were improved, "no filtering software successfully differentiates constitutionally protected speech from illegal speech on the Internet," says the ALA.

As Ginnie Cooper of the Multnomah County library (a co-plaintiff) testified, "there are some 5-year-olds whose parents do not want them to know where babies come from, and there are some that do. We don't try to presume the values of parents."

And let's face facts: Even the term "filtering" is a misnomer, says librarian Seth Finkelstein, because it "conjures up an image of removing evil, yucky, even toxic material, while leaving a purified result. The constant chant of 'porn, pornography, harmful to minors, obscenity, child porn, porn, porno, PORN ...' often keeps issues framed in these terms."

Finkelstein suggests replacing the word "filter" with "censorware," because these software programs are designed "to control what people are permitted to read."

Perhaps the worst thing about CIPA is that it negates the fact that librarians have been counseling children about what to read for many generations.

As Ann Beeson of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is arguing the case for the ALA, testified, librarians have become "uniquely qualified to teach library patrons how to find the content they want and avoid inappropriate content without the government trying to deputize them into the thought police,"

Statements like that make so much sense, one can't imagine what Congress was thinking of when it passed CIPA. Let's hope the judges in this case hear the truth about filters and throw CIPA out the window.


NOTE TO READERS: If you missed seeing Tuesday's column, #309, about "Literary Lynching," it may be because Topica, which distributes the column, mistakenly put the wrong date (February 23, 2002) on the message's dateline. That means #309 may be buried in email that arrived in your "In" basket a month ago. I apologize for the inconvenience: If you can't find #309, please write to me at and I'll send the column manually. Pat



Thanks to the many readers who responded with gusto about Dorothy Bryant's work-in-progress, "Literary Lynching," and the online publication of her Introduction and first chapter on this website.

A couple of the longer letters are reprinted below, but I want to take a moment here to respond to comments about the historical meaning of the term "lynching" and the meaning that Dorothy has given it.

The matter also came up on the Working Assets' radio program, The Laura Flanders' Show. As a guest on Wednesday's program, I talked about "Literary Lynching" as both a concept and a book.

Among the call-in comments, an African American listener said that although she understood what Dorothy Bryant was getting at, she felt uncomfortable about the use of the word "lynching." Considering how many African Americans had been hung by lynch mobs and burned or thrown in rivers afterward, she believed that Dorothy was "trivializing" the term.

"It's one thing to discuss how books and authors can be damaged by public opinion," the caller said (I'm paraphrasing). "But let's not forget what lynching means in American history. I don't believe the subject of lynching has ever been fully addressed in the first place."

So true. The word "lynching" instantly brings images of hanged African Americans (and Billie Holliday's song, "Strange Fruit"), yet it's hard to remember how much is taught about lynching in school or college - very little, as I remember.

The most famous use (recently) of the term occurred in 1991 during the Senate confirmation hearings on Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court. After Anita Hill's testimony, Thomas called the hearings "a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks."

"I felt Clarence Thomas seriously misused the term 'lynching' when he said that," Dorothy Bryant says. "The term has been defined over the years as a means 'to inflict punishment, especially death, without the forms of law' or 'to put to death by mob action without legal sanction.' "

"By no stretch of the imagination was Clarence Thomas being taken outside the law and punished," Dorothy adds. "Quite the opposite, in fact. His hearing was mandated by the Constitution. He was protected by law to state his credentials and his side of any controversy.

"For a man in his powerful position,he was unthreatened by the hesitant questions asked of him by senators of the Judiciary Committee. "What he said was a true 'trivialization,' a shameful trading on the suffering of all people who were killed by mob acton outside the law."

Perhaps the most intriguing use of the term comes in Dorothy's book when she gets to the chapter on William Styron. There we learn how a number of African Americans were so furious at Styron's book, "The Confessions of Nat Turner," that they tried to ruin his reputation.

Standing up to defend Styron was Henry Louis Gates, chairman of the prestigious African American Studies program at Harvard University.

"Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice," Gates said, "and it's just as disgusting when blacks do it as whites."

Bryant: "I use the term 'Literary Lynching' to mean a non-legal, non-government attempt to abuse or 'kill' a book. Far from trivializing the term, I take it very seriously indeed. To me it means the death of free speech."

[I've moved Part II in the Dorothy Bryant piece to next week.]



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding your piece on "literary lynching," I recently published a humor book that criticizes, among other things, the Mormon Church (Green Jell-O & Red Punch: The Heinous Truth! About Utah!). The book is written by Utah native and now Bay Area resident C.L. Crosby, who suffered the Church's oppressive (they call it "compassionate") attitude toward gays. One of the "compassionate" things the Mormon Church has done is attempt to "reconstitute" gays through psychological treatments.

At an event we had for the book as a fundraiser for the Salt Lake Gay & Lesbian Community Center, I was told by an employee how a psychiatrist put a sensor on his (the gay teen's) penis and make him watch porno movies. He became aroused watching gay porno. (This was a bad thing.) Then he was shown straight porno. He also became aroused. This was a good thing and he was deemed cured. (He WANTED to be "cured" so he didn't mention that he was aroused at seeing the naked men in the straight porno.) For a whole week he thought he was cured. But then he wasn't, so he agreed to go on a Mormon mission in another attempt to become cured. (No mention how spending two years with a same-sex companion was supposed to cure him.)

When Books, Inc. in San Francisco put up a poster announcing an author appearance for the book, the store received a long, angry letter from a Mormon customer who said neither she nor any of her friends would ever shop there again. (She signed the letter with her name, followed by "Harvard MBA."). She asked how a bookstore could possibly promote a book that criticizes the Mormon Church.

We were surprised to get such a response in San Francisco -- it's typically the type of response we would expect in Utah. For some reason, criticism of other religions is accepted but criticism of the Mormon Church is not. (No one would say "I don't understand how, as a bookstore, you can promote a book criticizing the Catholic Church." Or "I don't see how you can promote a book criticizing Islam.") The Mormon Church and its members feel that they should be immune from criticism, no matter the damage they do to their members' lives.

Susan Vogel
Pince-Nez Press

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your article on literary lynching made me think of the turmoil over "Beautiful Mind," the film. Lots of people skewered the film for changing the real story.

I recently read an article and saw an interview with the author of the book, Sylvia Nasar, who was outraged at the attacks on the film. She focused, in the interview and piece I read by her, on Nash's alleged homosexuality, his supposed anti-semitism and his relationship with his son. In regard to the first, she said that in fact, no evidence exists that Nash had sexual relationships with men. In regard to his son, she basically said that while his illness was at its worst, all of his relationships were poor & he was incapable of taking responsibility for himself, let alone a child, both of which the film clearly showed. His anti-Semitic remarks, she said, reflected his insanity as much as lots of other types of delusional comments that he made in print and face-to-face, and were not repeated when he was more in control of his illness.

Is she just defending a piece of work she had a lot invested in; were the attacks on a film a more current form of literary lynching or maybe just a reflection of our willingness to believe the worst about everything; or does it all just reflect the prismatic nature of reality?

Steve Adelson

Holt responds: Well, this is interesting. In the book, Nasar shows that Nash's arrest in a men's bathroom for soliciting and his intimate relationships with several men were considered signs to people around him that Nash had sexual interests in men. It's not factual "evidence," of course, but it does speak to the complexity of Nash, particularly when Nasar shows he was not "saved" by love but insisted he cured himself spontaneously. And while the film shows he had trouble caring for the couple's baby when he was ill, it also gives us the impression that Nash's son grew up to become a well-balanced mathematician in his own right (I think Russell Crowe as Nash even says his son is at Harvard, when in real life it was Rutgers; a small point but why did the movie change it?). So the film isn't "clearly showing" a lot of things.

I think it's a mistake to make literary lynching a more prevalent phenomenon than it is. People may wonder what's true and not true about a movie based on real life, and some may even get mad about it (count me in), but that's just controversy. Ron Howard still got his director's Oscar and reputations of all parties were hardly ruined. (Nash's got a leg up.) I think things took a nasty turn when competing studios tried to discredit the movie so that their own candidates would have a better chance winning Academy Awards. But Hollywood backbiting seems tame compared to the literary lynching Dorothy Bryant is talking about.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your column about about another lawsuit against the chains [by Intimate Bookshop] and about more dirt from the ABA suit gave me a laugh. After spending close to two weeks painstakingly analyzing seven Follett's Higher Education Group payments sent to our small publishing company in the year *2000* that created lasting problems by the taking of unauthorized chargebacks, (the Follett's accountant and I haven't even gotten to 2001 yet), I can't IMAGINE ever cutting Follett's or Barnes & Noble College any slack, let alone showering them with privileges. Well, I guess that's the difference between a small, penny-conscious publisher run with total accountability to your boss and fellow workers, and ... whoever these other publishers are.

Rabid Anti-chain Accounts Receivable

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
You can send comments or suggestions to

To subscribe, send a blank email to:


To unsubscribe, send a blank email to: