It’s all about freedom of speech—except when it isn’t

When my first novel Dark Time was published, I developed an affection for librarians. I guess I always respected them, but I was impressed by how interested they were in local authors, new writers, and most of all in their ardent desire to expose library users to as much of the world as possible. At least five different libraries sponsored events at which authors (including me) were allowed to make a presentation and sell and sign books. (As an aside, Plainville’s library will be sponsoring such an event on October 8, but more of that another time.)

Maybe you remember a 2009 incident in Cheshire when then-director of the town library, Ramona Harten, refused to accede to local protest and bought—for the library shelves—a book that detailed the murders of the Petit family in 2007. At the time Ms. Harten said “There are 100,000 books in our collection. Something is always going to offend someone,” adding that, despite what she described as a “very emotional” and negative reaction to the idea of the book, she felt it was her professional obligation to offer it to patrons. At the time I sent her a letter praising her courage; and while it’s true that society was not quite so polarized in general seven years ago, no local issue could have been more emotional or volatile.

In light of Ms. Harten’s stand, it was especially discouraging to read this short blurb about a ticket-holder in Charlotte waiting at a gate for yesterday’s NFL game.

Jennifer Hibner, a librarian who was headed into the stadium, said she’s “all about freedom of speech” but said that players who don’t respect the anthem “can go and play football in Canada.”

Now maybe she was speaking as a private citizen and not as a librarian, but I’m still shocked that someone who says “it’s all about freedom of speech” wants someone who exercises that freedom to leave the country.

But, although I have no immediate intention of moving to Toronto, I’ll exercise my freedom of speech. Ms. Hibner should not have been at that game. There should not have been a game at all in Charlotte yesterday. And people who claim that it was a necessary respite after the week’s events don’t deserve a respite. What they deserve is 75,000 residents of Charlotte in that stadium listening to the concerns of Black people, of police, of local officials. No placards or slogans, no chants, no weapons—just people talking and listening and getting others to do the same.

North Carolina could have used the good will such a convocation would have fostered, especially in light of recent and well-earned negative publicity. Instead the NFL “monitored the situation” and deemed it safe to play there. I’m glad the players and fans were safe, but their safety is not the issue. Is it commensurately safe for a Black man to sit in his SUV?

Charlotte—where a state of emergency segues neatly into football and where the locals gladly acquiesce to Republican VP candidate Mike Pence’s suggestion that we stop talking about systemic racism. Okay, but yesterday’s game in Tampa was delayed because of lightning in the area. I guess that’s more dangerous than racism. We probably shouldn’t talk about lightning either.


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