Interviewer: Cindy Cohn

Alison Macrina is an activist librarian and the director of Library Freedom Project (LFP). LFP is radically rethinking the library professional organization by creating a network of values-driven librarian-activists taking action together to build information democracy. LFP offers trainings, resources, and community building for librarians on issues of privacy, surveillance, intellectual freedom, labor rights, power, technology, and more—helping create safer, more private spaces for library patrons to feed their minds and express themselves.

Alison started LFP in 2015 to organize and build community with other librarians who are dedicated to library values of privacy, intellectual freedom, social responsibility, and the public good. Their work is informed by a social justice, feminist, anti-racist approach, and they believe in the combined power of long-term collective organizing and short-term, immediate harm reduction. 

Library Freedom Project was also a 2023 EFF Award recipient, and we were excited for this opportunity to get Alison’s views on the interaction between freedom of expression and power, the vitally important role of libraries and librarians as defenders and facilitators of freedom of expression and access to information, and so much more.

Cohn: Alright, we’re doing a Speaking Freely Interview with Alison- Alison why don’t you say your name?

Alison Macrina, like Ballerina

Cohn: From the Library Freedom Project- and an EFF Award Winner 2023! Alright, let’s get into it. What does freedom of speech mean to you, Alison?

Well, to me it means the freedom to seek information, to use it, to speak it, but specifically without fear of retribution from those in power. And in Library Freedom Project (LFP) we’re really particularly concerned about how free speech and power relate. In the US, I think about power that comes from, not just the government, but also rich individuals and how they use their money to influence things like free speech, as well as corporations. I also think about free speech in terms of how it allows us to define the terms of public debate and conversation. And how also we can use it to question and shift the status quo to, in my view, more progressive ends. I think the best way that we can use our speech is using it to challenge and confront power. And identifying power structures. I think those power structures are really present in how we talk about speech. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all the big money that’s involved with shaping speech like the Koch brothers, etc, and how they’re influencing the culture wars. Which is why I think it’s really important, when I think about free speech, to think about things like social and economic justice. In LFP we talk about information democracy – that’s like the EFF Award that we got – and what that means to us is about how free expression, access, privacy, power, and justice interact. It’s about recognizing the different barriers to free expression, and what is actually being said, and also prioritizing the collective and our need to be able to criticize and hold accountable the people with power so that we can make a better world.

Cohn: One of the things that I think the Library Freedom Project is that it’s really talking about the ability to access information as part of freedom of expression. Sometimes we only think about it as the speaking part, the part where it goes out, and I think one of the things that LFP really does is elevate the part where you get access to information which is equally, and importantly, a part of free speech. Is that something you want to talk about a little more? 

I think it’s one of the things that make libraries so special, right? It’s like what else do we have in our society that is a space that is just dedicated to information access? You know, anybody can use the library. Libraries exist in every community in the country. There’s all kinds of little sound bites about that, like, “there’s more libraries than there are McDonalds,” or, “there’s more libraries than Starbucks,” and what I think is also really unique and valuable about libraries is that they’re a public good that’s not means-tested. So in other words, they show up in poor communities, they’re in rich communities, they’re in middle-class communities. Most other public goods – if they exist – they’re only for the super, super poor. So it’s this, kind of… at it’s best… libraries can be such an equalizer. Some of the things we do in Library Freedom Project, we try to really push what the possibilities are for that kind of access. So offering trainings for librarians that expand on our understanding of free speech and access and privacy. Things like helping people understand artificial intelligence and algorithmic literacy. What are these tools? What do they mean? How do they work? Where are they at use? So helping librarians understand that so they can teach their communities about it. We try to think creatively about – what are the different kinds of technology at use in our world and how can librarians be the ones to offer better information about them in our communities? 

Cohn: What are the qualities that make you passionate about freedom of expression or freedom of speech? 

I mean it’s part of why I became a librarian. I don’t remember when or why it was what I wanted to do. I just knew it was what I wanted. I had like this sort of Loyd Dobler “say anything” moment where he’s like “I don’t want to buy anything that’s bought, sold, or made. I don’t want to sell anything that’s sold, bought, or made.” You know, I knew I wanted to do something in the public good. And I loved to read. And I loved to have an opinion and talk. And I felt like the library was the place that, not only where I could do that, but was a space that just celebrated that. And I think especially, all of the things that are happening in the world now, libraries are a place where we can really come together around ideas, we can expand our ideas, we can get introduced to ideas that are different from our own. I think that’s really extraordinary and super rare. I’ve always just really loved the library and wanted do it for my life. And so that’s why I started Library Freedom Project.

Cohn: That’s wonderful. Let’s talk a little about online speech and regulation. How do you think about online speech and regulation and how we should think about those issues? 

Well, I think we’re in a really bad position about it right now because, to my mind, there was a too-long period of inaction by these companies. And I think that now a decade or so of inaction created the conditions for a really harmful information movement. And now, it’s like, anything that we do, there’s unintended consequences. Content moderation is obviously extremely important- it’s an important public demand. I think it should be transparent and accountable. But all the ways that there are harmful information movements, everything I have seen, attempts to regulate them, have just resulted in people becoming hardened in their positions. 

This morning, for example, I was listening to the Senate Judiciary Hearings on book banning – because I’m a nerd – and it was a mess. It ended up not even really being about the book banning issue – which is a huge, huge issue in the library world – but it was all these Republican Senators talking about how horrible it was that the Biden administration was suppressing different kinds of COVID misinfo and disinfo. And they didn’t call it that, obviously, they called it “information” or “citizen science” or whatever. And it’s true that the Biden administration did do that – they made those demands of Facebook and so what were the results? It didn’t stop any of that disinformation. It didn’t change anybody’s minds about it. I think another big failure was Facebook and other companies trying to react to fake news by labeling stuff. And that was just totally laughable. And a lot of it was really wrong. You know, they were labeling all these leftwing outlets as Russian propaganda. I think that I don’t really know what the solution is to dealing with all of that. 

I think, though, that we’re at a place where the toothpaste is already so far out of the tube that I don’t know that any amount of regulation of it is going to be effective. I wish that those companies were regulated like public resources. I think that would make for a big shift. I don’t think companies should be making those kinds of decisions about speech. It’s such a huge problem, especially thinking about how it plays out for us at the local level in libraries- like because misinfo and disinfo are so popular, now we have people who request those materials from the library. And librarians have to make the decision- are we going to give in to public demand and buy this stuff or are we going to say, no, we are curators of information and we care about truth? We’re now in this position that because of this environment that’s been created outside of us, we have to respond to it. And it’s really hard- we’re also facing, relatedly, a massive rightwing assault on the library. A lot of people are familiar with this showing up as book bans, but it’s legislation, it’s taking over Boards, and all these other things. 

Cohn: What kind of situations, if any, is appropriate for governments or companies to limit speech? And I think they’re two separate questions, governments on the one hand and companies on the other. 

I think that, you know, Alex Jones should not be allowed to say that Sandyhook was a hoax – obviously, he’s facing consequences for that now. But the damage was done. Companies are tricky, because on the one hand, I think that different environments should be able to dictate the terms of how their platforms work. Like LFP is technically a company, and you’re not coming on any of my platforms and saying Nazi shit. But I also don’t want those companies to be arbiters of speech. They already are, and I think it’s a bad thing. I think that government regulation of speech we have to be really careful about. Because obviously it has the unintended consequence – or sometimes the intended consequences – are always harmful to marginalized people. 

Part of what motivated me to care about free speech is, I’ve been a political activist most of my life, on the left, and I am a big history nerd. And I paid a lot of attention to, historically, the way that leftist movements - how they’re speech has been marginalized and censored. From the Red Scare to anti-war speech. And I also look at a lot of what is happening now with the repression after the 2020 uprising, the No Cop City people just had this huge RICO indictment come down. And that is all speech repression that impacts things that I care about. And so I don’t want the government to intervene in any way there. At the same time, white supremacy is a really big problem. It has very real material effects and harms people. And one way this is a really big issue in my world, is part of the rightwing attack on libraries is, there is a bad faith free speech effort among them. They talk about free speech a lot. They talk about [how] they want their speech to be heard. But what they actually mean is, they want to create a hostile environment for other people. And so this is something that I end up feeling really torn about. Because I don’t want to see anyone go to prison for speech. I don’t want to see increased government regulation of speech. But I also think that allowing white supremacists to use the library meeting room or have their events there creates an environment where marginalized people just don’t go. I’m not sure what the responsible thing for us to do is. But I think that thinking about free speech outside of the abstract – thinking about the real material consequences that it has for people, especially in the library world – a lot of civil libertarians like to say, “you just respond with more speech.” And it’s like, well, that’s not realistic. You can’t easily do that especially when you’re talking about people who will cause some harm to these communities. One thing I do think, one reasonable speech regulation, is that I don’t think cops should be allowed to lie. And they are allowed, so we should do something about that. 

Cohn: Who is your free speech hero?

Well, okay, I have a few. Number one is so obvious that I feel like it’s trite to say, but, duh, Chelsea Manning. Everyone says Chelsea Manning, right? But we should give her her flowers again and again. Her life has been shaped by the decisions that she made about the things that she had to say in the public interest. I think that all whistleblowers in general are people that I have enormous respect for. People who know there are going to be consequences for their speech and do it anyway. And will sacrifice themselves for public good – it’s astounding.

I also am very fortunate to be surrounded by free speech heroes all the time who are librarians. Not just in the nature of the work of the library, like the everyday normal thing, but also in the environment that we’re in right now. Because they are constantly pushing the bounds of public conversation about things like LGBT issues and racial justice and other things that are social goods, under extremely different conditions. Some of them are like, the only librarian in a rural community where, you know, the Proud Boys or the three percenters or whatever militant group is showing up to protest them, is trying to defund their library, is trying to remove them from their positions, is trying to get the very nature of the work criminalized, is trying to redefine what “obscenity” means. And these people, under those conditions, are still pushing for free speech and I think that’s amazing.

And then the third one I’ll say is, I really try to keep an internationalist approach, and think about what the rest of the world experiences, because we really, even as challenging as things are in the US right now, we have it pretty good. So, when I was part of the Tor Project I got to go to Uganda with Tor to meet with some different human rights activists and talk to them about how they used Tor and help them with their situations. And I met all of these amazing Ugandan environmental activists who were fighting the construction of a pipeline – a huge pipeline from Tanzania to Uganda. And these are some of the world’s poorest people fighting some of the biggest corporations and Nation-States – because the US, Israel, and China all have a major interest in this pipeline. And these are people who were publishing anonymous blogs, with the use of Tor, under extreme threat. Many of them would get arrested constantly. Members of their organization would get disappeared for a few days. And they were doing it anyway, often with the knowledge that it wasn’t even going to change anything. Which just really was mind-blowing. And I stop and think about that a lot, when I think about all the issues that we have with free speech here. Because I think that those are the conditions that, honestly, most of the world is operating under, and those people are everyday heroes and they need to get their flowers. 

Cohn: Terrific, thank you Alison, for taking the time. You have articulated many of the complexities of the current place that we are and a few truths that we can hold, so thank you.