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Local author revels in censorship fight

News writer's story survives challenge from critics


by: COURTESY OF JIM SPEIRS - St. Johns Review writer Jim Speirs has been the focus of readers' ire because he often uses 'politically incorrect' language in his stories. One of Speirs' articles was among 28 challenged by library patrons across the state last year.Jim Speirs expected something like this to happen eventually.

Speirs, the historical editor for the St. Johns Review, has written articles for seven years at the neighborhood newspaper that, in his words, were sometimes very politically incorrect. Last month, one of his articles, peppered with such politically incorrect (but historically accurate) language, ended up on the list of more than two dozen books, DVDs, graphic novels and CDs challenged last year by library patrons across the state.

His Oct. 14, 2011, story, “A grave history and telling walks in North Portland,” was the only newspaper article among 28 challenges listed in the 2011-12 Oregon Intellectual Freedom Clearinghouse report. In fact, it was the only newspaper article among books, graphic novels, manga, videos and CDs challenged by patrons around Oregon for the past five years. (Rolling Stone and Playboy magazines in their entirety have been challenged at least three times during the past 25 years.)

“For me, it’s great fun to get under some people’s skin,” says Speirs, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran and self-published author who also is a fourth-generation Portlander.

“I feel privileged to be the only newspaper person to run in such company. My observations are this: political correctness equals censorship.”

Speirs’ use of the words “squaw,” “Chinaman” and “cookie” (a derogatory term for Asian-Americans) raised the ire of a Multnomah County library patron who read the front-page Halloween-related story at the St. Johns library branch. Just one day after it was published, the St. Johns man (whose name was not released) filed a formal complaint about Speirs’ article with county library officials.

On Oct. 26, 2011, Mutnomah County Library Director Vailey Oehlke declined to remove the newspaper article from the library collection, saying to do so would have been an “act of censorship.”

Speirs says he was only using historically correct names while recounting spooky stories of hauntings in North Portland, including the former Vanport site, a railroad line through the neighborhood and a plane crash on “Squaw Mountain.”

“I use history as a backdrop to tell interesting stories,” he says. “We’re talking about events that took place about 100 years ago. The vocabulary was different back then.”

The library patron claimed Speirs’ article had given readers the impression that “St. Johns is a community that supports racist views against Asian-Americans, Native Americans and women.”

Speirs isn’t surprised by the challenge. His self-published book, “Tales of North Portland,” included similar language and slightly skewed views of local neighborhoods, prompting some people to informally ask that it be removed from a local library branch.

“People have taken exception to me almost from day one,” Speirs says.

Potential for censorship

The challenge to Speirs’ newspaper article was one of 15 filed last year with Multnomah County library officials. All 15 books and DVDs were retained after a review of the challenges, says Jeremy Graybill, the library system’s communications director.

County library branches have a formal review system to handle complaints, and only one book has been removed from the county’s collection in the past few years, he says. “Master Math: Basic Math and Pre-Algebra” by Debra Ross, was challenged in 2009 and taken off the shelf because it contained inaccurate technical information.

Across the state, the Oregon Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee has kept track of challenges at public and school libraries since 1987. The state recorded a high of 34 challenges in 2008 and a low of 14 in 2007. In 2010, there were 24 challenges.

Since 1987, books most challenged include “Daddy’s Roommate” by Michael Willhoite, a comic book-style story about homosexual parents, challenged six times; “Annie on my Mind” by Nancy Garden, a young reader novel about a blossoming relationship between two teenage girls, challenged five times; “In the Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak, challenged five times; and, “Mommie Laid an Egg, or Where do Babies Come From?” by Babette Cole, a picture book about human reproduction, challenged four times.

Roberta Richards, co-chairwoman of the state Intellectual Freedom Committee and a Portland Community College faculty reference librarian, worries that budget woes could hamper review of future challenges to material in public schools.

“Most challenges to books occur at the school library level,” Richards says. “School librarians have developed a process for responding to challenges thoughtfully that takes into account the competing interests in the case. Unfortunately, many school libraries in Oregon are no longer being staffed by school librarians but by assistants who are not trained in the issues of intellectual freedom. My fear is that when a parent challenges a book in a school library run by a library assistant or a volunteer, that book will quietly disappear, and no one will ever know it has happened.”