A government forbidding a book, or any other form of enlightenment for that matter, is certainly not a new occurrence. The church called together the fifth Lateran Council in 1512 for the express purpose of book banning. It forbade the printing of books without ecclesiastical authority and set the precedent for the “book burning” (Lateran). The former Soviet Union was notorious for banning books it didn’t want it’s citizens thinking about. In America, reading itself was forbidden to the slaves. Today school libraries ban books thought “too adult”, “too violent”, and/or “too suggestive” for minors. Ironically, some of the very novels that helped to shake society from it’s archaic slumber are now the very books being railed against. The American Library Association (ALA) has compiled a list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. A few examples of the books included in this list are: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Giver, Flowers for Algernon, James and the Giant Peach, The Face on the Milk Carton, and Summer of My German Soldier (1-3).
The Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom of March 1996 through March 1997 put out a similar list of books banned from school libraries or curricula and the reasons for the challenge. It included The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Moby Dick for conflicting with values of the community. A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye, and Of Mice and Men are guilty of profane and/or graphic language. A Wrinkle in Time undermines religious beliefs. A Light in the Attic is too dreary and negative. Little House in the Big Woods and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are racially offensive. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night encourages homosexuality. Gone with the Wind once swept the nation off it’s proverbial feet with romanticism, but now brings the masses to their feet in outrage at the behavior of Miss Scarlet. The Merchant of Venice offends the Jews, Little Red-Riding Hood promotes alcohol, and Dick and Jane have been holding society in antiquated sexual roles for far too long (Gustafson). The mass banning of these books has been committed largely by people who have not even read them. They are banned more for what is thought about them and for one of two lines then for their actual content.
This type of banning seems a popular, if alarming, trend. Just what threat do these books really pose? It all centers around one harmful little concept: knowledge and the communication of ideas in words, phrases, and novels. What is really being banned is not the books, but the ideas they represent. In the 1500s these harmful ideas were anything secular. In the Soviet Union, the bad thoughts were anything religious. In cases of slavery, any thought was dangerous. Today in America, any idea that hasn’t been politically-corrected is wrong.
Books are challenged and banned on the basis of their content, as well. This area can become very hard to interpret. It is generally accepted that bomb making is an illegal pastime, as it should be. However, the issue of a book that tells of bomb making is much grayer. In 1999 the U.S. Senate passed a bill banning the publication or dissemination of information on bomb-making with the intent that the information be used to commit crimes (Halpern 14). They also passed the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act of 1999, banning the publication or dissemination of information on drug use (Ockerbloom 3). At a glance these bills seem like steps in the right direction. Under closer inspection, one is likely to realize that the government has banned information and intent, to be determined by further court decisions. It is a precarious act to grant discretion of just what exactly is “dangerous” information and what is “intent” to our governments on a freely changing basis. This is one of the scariest aspects of book banning.
Book banning alleviates differences. Any book that expresses a difference of race, sexual orientation, values, and/or ideas is at risk. The Giver, 1994 winner of the Newbery Medal, is #14 on the top 100 list (The 100). It’s a book about a world existing sometime in the distant future where differences have been banned and society has achieved “Sameness” in everything. When Jonas, the Receiver of memories, asks why they have no more colors the Giver responds, “We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with differences. [ . . . ] We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.” (Lowry 95) The relentless pursuit of Sameness “saved” society from prejudice, rain, and sorrow. It cost society it’s colors, sunshine, and joy. Surely the price of “Sameness” is too high. By forcing thoughts, speech, and books into “Sameness” society gets one step closer to this banned world.
In a “free” society it is almost incomprehensible that these things can happen. But they do happen, and legally. One of the major precedents for today’s book banning was 1873’s Comstock Law (the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act). This act, among other things, “banned the mailing of lewd, indecent, filthy, or obscene materials” (Ockerbloom 1). It has yet to be repealed. While it is rarely enforced, it has been used as the basis for several current bills. It was the Anti-Obscenity Act that allowed books like Candide, The Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights and many others to be banned across the nation in the early 1900s. It was this same Anti-Obscenity Act that caused so much uproar in 1996 when it was applied to the Telecommunications Reform Bill. This single piece of legislation has been used over and over again to circumvent the first amendment right to free speech.
In times of conflict, America is inclined to censorship. Throughout history libraries have been forced to pull books off the shelves for “disturbing” and “un-American” content. From Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to anti-draft pamphlets, what threatens war-time unity threatens the nation (Ockerbloom 2). It’s no surprise then that in these uncertain days censorship has raised it’s ugly head once more, this time in the guise of the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act is a broad reaching super-bill affecting virtually anything one can think to apply it to. It’s implications in the realm of free speech are alarming. Among other things, it allows for the tracking of what is being read in public libraries. This is a small step from dictating what is allowed to be read in public libraries. It is hard to imagine the courts entertaining a case made from evidence such as “John Doe recently read Jump Ship to Freedom, he must be a terrorist.”
In the face of such blatant disregard for constitutional law, it is comforting to know that the Supreme Court is there to clear the way of such freedom obstruction. In his speech accepting the Lauterbach award, Court Justice William Douglas had these words to say: The safety of our civilization lies in making freedom of thought and freedom of speech vital, valid features of our life. Our proudest boast has been a system that makes belief in the unorthodox a permissible way of life. [ . . . ] It is the interchange of ideas, the challenge to prejudices that give any people the resiliency to meet changing conditions. [ . . . ] Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us. (Douglas 20) Though these words were spoken almost exactly 52 years ago under the perceived threat of communism, they are no less true today. In these times of terrorist threats it becomes tempting to inhibit freedom of speech and throw around the label “un-American”. However, it also becomes imperative to remember exactly what “American” means.
The first Amendment of the Bill of Rights reads, “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” (U.S.). This is the declaration of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms that every citizen of the United States of America is entitled to. It is the verification that to be “American” means to recognize, utilize, and appreciate those freedoms. The mass banning of idea sharing is itself a terrorist act against Americans. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech” (Quotes).
The banning of books in this country is nothing short of an obstruction of justice. The classics that taught society to look beyond itself are every bit as necessary for the children of today as they were for the children of 50 years ago. Shakespeare can still show the beautiful side of humanity more poignantly than anyone else. It is precisely the imperfectness of literature that creates in the soul a perfect kindredship and understanding of new ideas. And these new ideas are precisely what allows for growth. Lest we stunt the nation, we must not stunt it’s libraries.
Douglas, William. “The One Un-American Act.” Nieman Reports 7.1 (1953): pg. 20
Gustafson, Patrick. “Learning, K-12: Books That Have Been Challenged.” Christian Science Monitor 19 May 1998. 8 Dec. 2003 1998/05/19/fp55s2-csm.htm>.
Halpern, Jake. “On the Hill: Intentional Foul..” The New Republic 10 April 2000: 14-15.
“Lateran Councils.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 2003. Microsoft Corporation. 9 Dec. 2003 http://encarta.msn.com>.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver. New York: Bantam, 1993.
Ockerbloom, John Mark, ed. Banned Books Online. The Online Books Page. 9 Dec. 2003 .
Quotes on Book Banning. American Library Association. 9 Dec. 2003 .
The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. American Library Association. 8 Dec. 2003 Freedom3/Banned_Books_Week/Related_Links7/100_Most_Frequently_Challenged_
Constitution/constitution.billofrights.html>. . Legal Information Institute. 11 Dec. 2003