September Changemaker: Judith Krug

She’s been hailed as “central to many of the battles that gave modern interpretation to the First Amendment”, “tireless and outspoken” and “principled and unwavering.” But the title she considered a badge of honor was being one of a “bunch of hysterical librarians.” This month, as we celebrate both Banned Books Week and Constitution Day, we honor First Amendment champion Judith Krug as our September Changemaker.

When Krug led the charge against unconstitutional searches of confidential library databases performed under the auspices of the USA PATRIOT Act, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft dismissed the protests as being led by the aforementioned bunch of hysterical librarians. But far from hysterical, Judith Krug fought tenaciously and methodically against threats to the First Amendment all her life.

As a young girl, Krug’s parents already supported her intellectual freedom — when her mother found her under the covers one night using a flashlight to read a book on sex education, Krug timidly held up the book to her mother. Instead of getting angry about the subject matter, her mother simply said “For God’s sake turn on the bedroom light so you don’t hurt your eyes.” From that spark, a First Amendment champion was born.

Krug became the director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom upon its inception in 1967, and as director launched Banned Books Week. The Judith F. Krug Memorial Fund now helps nonprofits host their own Banned Books Week events. This year, the list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books include the novel The Kite Runner, the classic To Kill A Mockingbird, and the picture book And Tango Makes Three. In addition to drawing attention to censorship through Banned Books Week, Krug led the OIF to provide advocacy trainings and resources throughout the year to preserve First Amendment rights. In 1969 she helped found the Freedom to Read Foundation which raises money to help librarians fight legal battles against censorship.

Throughout her career, Krug worked tirelessly to advocate for intellectual freedom and fight against censorship. First, the battle was against removing books from library shelves (even books with ideals she disagreed with), and then with the advent of the Internet, the battle grew. She organized the efforts against the broad definition of “indecency” in the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. “Instead of relying on filtering technology, we should be educating children,” she said. “It’s not only learning the difference between right and wrong, but how to use information wisely. . . . There are no quick fixes.”

Krug won numerous awards for her work, including the William J. Brennan award from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression (Krug was only the 5th recipient of the award since it was first given in 1993) and the Harry Kalven Freedom of Expression Award from the ACLU.

“Librarian” and “rebel”’ are not always words we think of together. But Judith Krug’s lifetime of work fighting for the First Amendment in small local libraries to the Supreme Court illustrates how one person can embody both.