Judith Krug

Champion of free speech
1940 – 2009
by Leonard Kniffel

Judith Krug, 2001.

Courtesy of the American Library Association.

Judith Krug believed that no one has the right to tell other people what they can or cannot read. When asked where libraries should draw the line when it comes to stocking controversial material, she always had one answer: "The law." She understood that we are a nation living under the rule of law, and that creating, enforcing, or overturning the laws of the land is the single most important way to safeguard the freedom to read for all Americans.

In establishing the Freedom to Read Foundation in 1969, Krug based the organization's mission firmly in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

When Congress did try to make laws "abridging the freedom of speech," her tenacious involvement in court battles was the stuff of legend. From the triumphant Supreme Court decision that overturned the Communications Decency Act in 1997 to the court's stubborn upholding of the Children's Internet Protection Act in 2003, Judy Krug never gave up the fight. Many disagreed with her, but none disrespected her.

On April 11, after a long and courageous battle with stomach cancer, Krug died as she had lived for 40 years, as the proud director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), still leading the charge, still presiding over Banned Books Week last fall, as she had done since founding it in 1982.

Krug often said that when ALA established OIF in 1967 and put her in charge, then–Executive Director David H. Clift sat her down and told her to "put that office on the map." Rallying her BA from the University of Pittsburgh (1961), her master's in library science from the University of Chicago (1964), and her natural gifts as a writer, speaker, and progressive thinker, she set about to do just that.

"From time to time, and especially in periods of great stress or social upheaval, a variety of real or imagined evils have been attributed to the reading of obscene and pornographic works," she wrote in the April 1968 issue of American Libraries (then called ALA Bulletin). "The words 'obscenity' and 'pornography,' which in themselves cause considerable emotion, are often applied indiscriminately to materials containing ideas, acts, and words which one or another group may find reprehensible," she added, setting the stage for placing the American Library Association often on the same side of the censorship battle with the likes of Hustler magazine's Larry Flynt and Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner.

A suburban Chicago mom in her private life, Judy Krug was no prude, and she understood ALA's obligation to defend the right of Americans to publish and read what she personally thought of as "sleaze," a word she used to describe Madonna's 1992 book Sex, which many libraries refused to purchase. Call it sleaze she did, but with the caveat that it should be available in every public library. Krug understood that people have the right to make up their own minds, without librarians exercising a kind of prior restraint by refusing to buy controversial materials.

Frequently attacked by would-be censors, Krug defended what they often called her liberal agenda. She said in an interview in the September 1995 issue of American Libraries, "If I have an agenda, it is protection of the First Amendment. Libraries in this country cannot operate unless we can stand foursquare on the First Amendment. And if that becomes a partisan position, well, OK, I guess if I have to be partisan I will be partisan on behalf of the First Amendment."

Although she was a liberal Democrat in her personal political leanings, Krug was well aware that, as she put it in the same AL interview, "Our threats come from across the spectrum of social and political thought…. We have gone through periods where our biggest threats have been from the left of center, where people have wanted to remove materials that did not portray, for instance, minority groups in the way that they thought minority groups should be portrayed." She also believed it was the librarian's responsibility to listen respectfully to those complaints.

She was speaking from experience. One of her greatest challenges as OIF director came in 1977, when she and ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee produced a film titled The Speaker, tackling censorship by telling the story of a library's decision to allow a racist to speak. Designed to serve as a focal point for library discussions about the First Amendment, the film ironically became a divisive issue at the 1977 ALA Annual Conference in Detroit, denounced by some librarians who called it "insulting in its characterization of black people." Then-ALA Executive Director Robert Wedgeworth, her boss at the time, calls the moment one of the Association's most dramatic. "It split ALA wide open," he said, and "there was a lot of pressure for me to fire Judith."

Whatever the arguments in favor of censorship were, Judy Krug had the rebuttal. "She was always ready for confrontation," Wedgeworth recalled, "and she was such a good debater she could win almost any argument."

Cooler heads prevailed in the case of The Speaker, said Wedgeworth, "but we had underestimated the fact that discussion of race was the one issue that people could not accept with respect to the First Amendment." He noted that "true to her convictions, Judith stuck by the film."

Handling controversy was an innate talent that Judy Krug possessed. "She invented what they now call media training," said Art Plotnik, former editor of American Libraries.

Krug debated the Equal Rights Amendment in Kentucky with conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in 1990, drawing cheers from a Berea College crowd for articulating "the librarians' view," while Schlafly inspired booing.

Krug refined her communications skills to yet another level when dealing with the media frenzy over sexually explicit material online, a furor that erupted as internet access began becoming available in public libraries.

For Krug, one of the greatest triumphs of her career was the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the Communications Decency Act. Under her leadership, ALA filed suit in 1996, challenging the CDA, a provision of the Telecommunications Act that President Clinton had signed into law, as an unconstitutional violation of the free speech rights of adults while failing to accomplish its intended purpose of protecting children from inappropriate online content.

Perhaps her greatest disappointment was the 2003 Supreme Court ruling that the Children's Internet Protection Act was constitutional, ending a battle over internet filtering that cost ALA over a million dollars. Adults, the court decided, could ask that filters be turned off for unrestricted access and Congress could require libraries to install filtering in exchange for funding. It was a decision that Krug had fought hard.

"She was a purist, uncompromising," said Plotnik. "Anyone else would have caved with the exceptions people would throw at her." He recalled working many a late night across the hall from Krug. "I never remember her turning away a cold call from a librarian who needed help," he said. "She would stay long hours to give the most elaborate advice to people calling from the field."

Krug believed that it was ALA's role to help libraries set standards and create policies. "If I've done nothing else in my career but convince people that they have to have policy and then help them develop good policy, I will have considered my career a success," she said.

Judy Krug famously attributed her open-mindedness to her unflappable mother, revealing that at the age of 12 she had obtained a sex education book and was reading it under the bed covers with a flashlight when her mother suddenly threw back the covers and asked what she was doing. Young Judith shyly held up the book. "For God's sake," her mother said, "turn on your bedroom light so you don't hurt your eyes."

But Judith Krug wasn't doing her job just for librarians; she was doing it for her country, and for the rights and privileges her children and grandchildren enjoy as Americans. From the beginning of her career as a librarian, she thought big, and she inspired countless librarians to do likewise. She shattered the image of libraries as the benign sanctuary of the meek, and she forever altered the image of librarians, from bespectacled guardians of the respectable to articulate and unyielding defenders of the freedom to read.

More on Judith Krug, 1940 - 2009


Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.


Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

Get JWA in your inbox

Read the latest from JWA from your inbox.

sign up now

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Judith Krug, 1940 - 2009." (Viewed on April 21, 2024) <http://jwa.org/weremember/krug-judith>.