Statement to the Council of the American Library Association on the proposed “Resolution on Institutional Review Boards and Intellectual Freedom” June 29, 2010, by Melora Ranney Norman, Councilor-at-Large and Intellectual Freedom Committee Liaison for the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA)
This resolution is not about ethics, which are rightly created and which professionals are rightly expected to follow. It is about the misapplication of a federal funding requirement created to address problems in biomedical research which is being wrongly applied to the humanities. People on some college campuses wanting to engage in speech with others are being required to apply for a license. The result is procedural implementations which amount to prior restraint of speech, and do not guarantee that one person speaking to another will not say something they come to regret. They do, however, result in hurdles that run the gamut from brief delay to unmanageable burden.
On December 27, 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to William Roscoe on the founding of the University of Virginia. In it, he said:
"This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."
In that vein, On June 1, 2010, Lithwick and Schragger wrote online:
. . . the core and central enterprise of academic faculty in the university is to exercise First Amendment rights—rights guaranteed to everyone by the Constitution. Academic faculty happen to be exercising those rights as part of their job, but that does not make those rights any less worthy of protection. In performing their core functions, faculty are always engaged in the process of free inquiry. And free inquiry is the central project of the university—the university can't exist without it, as Thomas Jefferson well understood when he founded the University of Virginia.
We need to understand that ''Any system of prior restraints of expression comes to [the] Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity.'' In other words, activity involving expression—speech—has been protected by the courts from anything that restricts it in advance. Surveys and interviews are expression; they comprise a conversation between two people, and should not be restrained unless, as the Prisoner’s Right to Read statement that we just passed asserts, “they present an actual compelling and imminent risk to safety.”
. . . in September 2003, staff at the federal Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) seemed to agree that oral history should generally be excluded from Institutional Research Board (IRB) review . . . But as many academic historians have discovered, the IRBs at many colleges and universities are ignoring or rejecting the agreement: . . . growing numbers of oral historians find themselves bumping up against hard-and-fast rules on matters like source confidentiality that cut against the standards and established practices of our profession.
Rules applying to biomedical research simply do not fit speech-based academic endeavors using surveys or interviews, as with oral history. As the AHA's position statement asserts:
At times information in an interview, if made public, could indeed, in the language of 45 CFR 46, "reasonably place the subjects at risk of criminal or civil liability or be damaging to the subjects' financial standing, employability, or reputation." Yet historians' deepest responsibility is to follow the evidence where it leads, to discern and make sense of the past in all its complexity; not to protect individuals from the possible repercussions of past mistakes or misdeeds. In this we are akin to journalists and unlike medical professionals, who are indeed enjoined to do no harm.
Federal regulators allow colleges and universities to exempt speech-based academic endeavors involving the use of surveys and interviews; some institutions, like George Mason University, do so. Others, for reasons I cannot comprehend, do not, with the result that some people on college campuses enjoy less free expression than the rest of us. Despite the fact that walking down the street is more dangerous than any conversation could ever be, on some college and university campuses, assertions of liability or vague, unproven risk are allowed to trump any actual proof of risk or danger, to the detriment of the preservation of knowledge and the human record.
Libraries are all about preserving and providing access to the human record with all its pimples, bumps, and bruises. Many of us have heard a quote attributed to Jo Godwin asserting that "A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” If the human record is not created to begin, how can we collect, preserve, and provide access to it?
I hope that the American Library Association will join the American Historical Association and the American Association of University Professors in their recommendation that academic policies preserve academic freedom.
Melora Ranney Norman, Councilor-at-large
Resolution, moved June 29, 2010, referred to the Intellectual Freedom Committee the Library Research Roundtable, the Library History Roundtable, and the Committee on Professional Ethics
“Resolution on Institutional Review Boards and Intellectual Freedom”
WHEREAS The American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights states: “Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas,” and
WHEREAS Speech-based academic activities are protected by the United States Constitution, and
WHEREAS Institutional Review Board regulation of interview-based academic endeavors constitutes prior restraint of speech, a violation of constitutional doctrine, and
WHEREAS No such licensing of speech is imposed upon citizens who are not working at institutions with IRBs, and
WHEREAS The United States Code of Federal Regulations, Title 45, Part 46.101 allows colleges and universities to implement policies that exempt research using “survey procedures, interview procedures, or observation of public behavior,” and
WHEREAS Extensive reports of substantial chilling effect upon oral historians by IRB activity led to a 2008 statement by the American Historical Association calling for oral history to be “explicitly exempted from IRB review,” and
WHEREAS Students and faculty in journalism have experienced similar chilling effects due to overzealous IRB activity, and
WHEREAS Students and faculty wishing to implement simple opinion polls on campus have experienced similar chilling effects due to overzealous IRB activity, and
WHEREAS The American Association of University Professors, responding to this problem, issued a 2005 recommendation that: “research on autonomous adults whose methodology consists entirely in collecting data by surveys, conducting interviews, or observing behavior in public places, be exempt from the requirement of IRB review—straightforwardly exempt, with no provisos, and no requirement of IRB approval of the exemption,”
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED That the American Library Association supports the American Historical Association in its position on oral history Institutional Review Board exemption, and joins with the American Association of University Professors in recommending that “research on autonomous adults whose methodology consists entirely in collecting data by surveys [or] conducting interviews . . . be exempt from the requirement of IRB review—straightforwardly exempt, with no provisos, and no requirement of IRB approval of the exemption.”
Moved by: Melora Ranney Norman, Councilor-at-large
Seconded by: Thomas Wilding, Councilor-at-large
Research on Human Subjects: Academic Freedom and the Institutional Review Board
AHA Statement on IRBs and Oral History Research
Questions Regarding the Policy Statement
Code of Federal Regulations, Title 45, Part 46
Ethics & IRB Links has been moved to the Q & A