Yesterday, as I was filing my income tax, someone emailed to tell me about Sheffield City Council's decision this week to ban Ian McMillan. For those who don't know about this, Mr McMillan, a poet, broadcaster and comedian, was scheduled to run a children's creative writing workshop at Upperthorpe Library in Sheffield. The event was intended to highlight the value of libraries to their local community, in a time when, as we all know, both school and public libraries face massive cuts.
Apparently, the city council banned Mr McMillan because they feared that the event might be hijacked for the purpose of making 'political' comments. Hijacked by whom, or how, the article didn't make clear, but according to Sintoblog (sintoblogspot.com) the background to this is the fact that Sheffield council, although not currently proposing any library closures at present, is planning major cuts to the library budget which will have an inevitable knock-on to service provision.
There are two main points about this story that immediately caught my attention. First, the issue of censorship. What we seem to have here is a clear-cut case of a political body banning free speech because it might reflect negatively on their policies.
I don't know whether or not Mr McMillan was planning to be overtly political as he taught creative writing to the children (having done quite a few creative writing workshops with 8-12 year-olds, the mind boggles trying to figure out how exactly one might manage to slip a political agenda in there along with the zombies, vampires and alien invasions), but the issue here is surely whether or not a city council is entitled to ban the expression of opinions which might prove politically awkward.
Beyond the free speech implication, I was struck by the philosophical stance of Sheffield City Council not wanting libraries, of all things, to be used as a forum or focus for political comment. I find it surreal that politicians should not be aware of -- or should choose to ignore -- the fact that libraries are political in essence. Libraries, like hospitals and schools, are physical representations of the implied bargain between the citizen and the politician.
As many people (other than the members of Sheffield City Council) know, the word 'politics' is derived from the Greek word 'politika', famously used by Aristotle as the title of his work about ethics and political philosophy. Politics means 'affairs of the city'. It means the relationship between the citizen and the 'polis', or city, and their responsibilities to each other.
And this is the heart of the matter. I have a responsibility, like all citizens or residents, to pay my tax so that politicians can decide how to spend my money to keep the city, county or country running. That's what I did last night (a bit late, but 2011 is turning out to be my year for scary deadlines).
In return, politicians have a responsibility to the citizenry, which is to provide services, and to make politically accountable decisions about that provision. We elect politicians to make hard decisions. And if we disagree with the decisions they are making, we also have a responsibility to inform them of that fact. The debate about the provision of services in a time of financial constraint must be kept open and free-flowing, and Sheffield City Council needs to embrace its proper political role and reject the temptation of censorship.