August 02, 2022
My Sunday NY Times feed brought up the growing incidence of book banning in the US. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in America, but apparently that right ends if you write a book that says something other people disagree with. Banning of books and pamphlets began as censorship in the Colonies in the 17th century and led America’s founders to draft the First Amendment to the Constitution. The recent wave began at the end of last year according to a statement from the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). Between June 1 and November 29, 2021, OIF tracked an unprecedented 155 unique censorship incidents. Most of the challenged books focus on LGBTQ issues, discuss racism in America, and/or “document the Black experience or the experiences of other BIPOC individuals.” The crusade to suppress marginalized voices has picked up steam in 2022, with increasing numbers of parents, activists, school boards, and local policymakers seizing the chance to enact bans and restrictions on books in schools and public libraries.
When I looked online, I found book banning is the act of removing materials from a school or library’s collection because of objections from groups or individuals who say that they need to protect others (children) from the difficult information or ideas contained in the books. While book banning today focuses on attempts to keep certain works of fiction out of the hands of impressionable children and young adults, the first instances of this censorship in Colonial America centered on objections to religious and political texts deemed too dangerous for the public. This censorship continued even after passage of the First Amendment, with perhaps the most famous being the reaction to publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel on the cruelties of slavery, and the first American work of fiction to become an international best seller. Stowe’s novel was widely banned in the American South as “abolitionist propaganda” and is still challenged in the US today for its inclusion of racial slurs. In response to the controversy, Congress passed the Comstock Act of 1873, which made it “illegal to possess, sell, give away, exhibit, or send obscene books, pamphlets, pictures, drawings, or advertisements through the mail, along with anything else considered lewd, lascivious, immoral, or indecent.” Between 1874 and 1915, an estimated 3,500 people were prosecuted, but only about 350 were convicted.
Who has the authority to ban books depends on the institution where a book is located. For schools this is generally the school board who gives the final approval on whether a book will be included in the school curriculum, the school library, or on a suggested reading list. Most school districts have a committee that give recommendations to the board. Book banning a set of “4 R’s” (redaction, relocation, restriction, and removal) that are contrary to the “3 R’s” taught in school (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic). Redaction is when you put a line through a word you do not like or cover a particular image. Relocation is when you remove something from its intended audience and aim it at a different audience (putting a children’s book in the young adult section). Restriction is when you require permission to read something. Removal is what most people think about when they hear about book banning. This says the book needs to be removed “from the collection, from the curriculum, and from my sight.”
𝗧HOUGHTS: It is a violation of the First Amendment for the government to “ban books merely because it dislikes the ideas contained in those books, nor may it do so for partisan, political, or viewpoint-based reasons,” says Vera Eidelman of the ACLU. Libraries are places where people can exercise their First Amendment rights by exploring a wide range of viewpoints, genres, and experiences. First Amendment protections apply whether the government is banning books entirely or limits access to them by putting them in a separate section or behind the librarians’ desk. There are 27 ratified amendments to the US Constitution. You cannot have selective memory when it comes to supporting these amendments. Each ensures a granted right. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.