The American Library Association has named Mike Blasenstein and Michael Dax Iacovone the winners of the 2011 John Phillip Immroth Memorial Award for intellectual freedom. Earlier this year, Blasenstein and Iacovone established and maintained the Museum of Censored Art, a mobile protest center they parked outside the National Portrait Gallery from Jan. 13 to Feb. 13. Arts Desk reported on the protest back in January.
“We are honored by the American Library Association’s recognition of our efforts, but we can’t help pointing out that Secretary Clough and the Smithsonian Board of Regents could easily have been the recipients of this award instead of us,” said a release put out by the activists. “In fact they should have.”
The Museum of Censored Art was a response to the decision by Secretary of the Smithsonian G. Wayne Clough to censor David Wojnarowicz‘s video A Fire in My Belly from the “Hide/Seek” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. Sec. Clough acted after the museum was flooded by responses to a report by Penny Starr that described that work specifically as anti-Christian. Starr—who works for the Media Research Center, a conservative activist organization connected closely to the Catholic League and Parents Television Council—prompted responses from staffers working for GOP House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) by asking, “Should this exhibition continue or be cancelled?”
Blasenstein says via email that Tasara Redekopp, a volunteer who worked in the volunteer-run Museum of Censored Art (and happens to be a D.C. Public Schools middle-school librarian) nominated them for the award.
“The volunteer told us, so we knew it was a possibility,” Blasenstein says. “It’s nice to be recognized. Of course we didn’t do it for any award,” Blasenstein says. “I think it’s continuing to highlight the important issue of Smithsonian censorship. You can’t censor something, have a phoney-baloney open forum, and then the problem goes away.”
The ALA award is typically given to freedom-of-speech defenders working in the realm of libraries and public education. It’s not the first time activists in the District have brought home the award. In 2009, it was awarded to Alanna Natanson and Kam MacPherson, the founders of the Takoma Park Library’s Banned Books Club, an extracurricular club for middle-school students dedicated to reading the books that authorities don’t always want them to read.
“To me, Mike and Mike exemplified the spirit of this award, and the spirit of defending intellectual freedom by not only resisting this act of censorship, but by publicizing the frightening speed at which it happened and the cover-up that followed,” Redekopp says via email. “To top it off, they didn’t just protest the censorship, but found a way to allow the public to access the censored piece and consider it for themselves. Resisting censorship and promoting access—it makes them library heroes even if they aren’t librarians!”
“It’s the leading voice against censorship in America. To have them honor us is really a rebuke to the Smithsonian, as it should be,” Blasenstein says.
Note: This post has been updated.