Commentary Religion

Stoking Fire: ‘Banned Books Week’ Reminds Us That Censorship Is a Year-Round Problem

Eleanor J. Bader

Even in the age of information, parents, pastors, and community groups still frequently attempt to stymie young people's access to "offensive" literature.

When the 2014-2015 academic year kicked off, the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate faced new line items in their budget. As ordered by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley two months earlier, each of the institutions had to devote tens of thousands of dollars—$52,000 and $17,000, respectively—toward teaching works related to the foundation of the United States. The reason for the expense? Censorship.

During the past year, both colleges had included books with LGBTQ themes on their mandatory summer reading lists for incoming students. Charleston had selected Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a graphic memoir that chronicles the 2014 MacArthur Fellow’s coming-out process and addresses her relationship with her always-closeted gay father. Meanwhile, USC-Upstate had chosen to assign its new first-year class Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, a compilation of stories about the state’s first queer radio show. As punishment for what one elected official called “promoting one side with no academic debate involved,” the state legislature moved to cut a collective $70,000 from the schools’ public-funding budget—the amount the colleges would have spent to provide copies of the books to students.

Ultimately, the threatened financial hand-slap did not come to pass: An 11th-hour deal restored the money after both schools agreed to spend an equivalent amount teaching the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Federalist Papers to all degree-seeking students. Many South Carolinians dubbed this an acceptable compromise, seeing nothing wrong with a strong academic focus on American democracy. At the same time, however, a host of groups, including The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, dubbed the move “unwarranted political interference with academic freedom.”

This interference is an excellent reminder that censorship, especially when it comes to publicly funded institutions, puts the availability of diverse viewpoints and narratives in real danger. Every year, the American Library Association (ALA) and other groups spend the last week in September coordinating events that bring attention to classic and modern works of literature regularly put on blast by pastors, parents, and government organizations. But even beyond “Banned Books Week,” which begins on September 21 this year, it is vital to remember that the attempted restriction of ideas remains an ongoing problem in the United States.

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Unsurprisingly, books written for children, teens, and young adults come under particular scrutiny for their content. Many free-speech defenders report that the growing popularity of texts with LGBTQ themes—such as Fun Home and Out Loud—has prompted widespread backlash. Additionally, they say, books written by women and people of color are also frequent targets of attempted censorship, especially when they reference sex, sexuality, or the human body. In short, any rhetoric that deviates from the mainstream often seems to raise the ire of people who wish to control and monitor every syllable that children read.

And the pressure isn’t just coming from right-wing legislators or religious conservatives. “Unlike [in] the 1980s and ’90s, big national organizations like the American Family Association are not the public face of this anymore,” Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, told Rewire. “It’s now a more localized phenomenon, sometimes led by a messianic pastor who tries to remove books from a library or school and sometimes led by a parent or group of parents who are coming from the political left or political center. There are a lot of well-meaning, concerned adults who simply don’t think a particular book is good for their kids or anyone else’s kids and want it gone.”

According to reports from the ALA-affiliated Freedom to Read Foundation, adults frequently justify those concerns by pointing to texts’ supposed “offensive language,” an imprecise term that includes profanity as well as the explicit mention of body parts. In other cases, their attempts to control a child’s perspective reflect a desire to retreat into apparently simpler times. Barbara M. Jones, executive director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said that parents sometimes have “a romantic idea of libraries as places people go to read nice stories to children.”

Jones explained, “We see what I call ‘helicopter parents,’ upper-middle-class people who somehow think it’s a good idea to protect their kids from situations or conditions that are going on in worlds other than their own. … They’re afraid of books that talk about suicide, drug use, violence, or other difficult subjects.”

While the inventory of literature deemed objectionable varies by locale, the ALA has been monitoring challenged books for decades. It notes on its website that these books, which grapple with such “difficult subjects,” frequently come under fire:

  • Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: The ALA reports that critics object to its “homosexuality, offensive language, and racism,” and that it is “sexually explicit” and “unsuited to age group” of young readers.
  • Judy Blume’s Forever: “Offensive language, sexual content”
  • Lauren Myracle’s ttyl: “Drugs, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group”
  • Alice Walker’s The Color Purple:Homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit”
  • Robie H. Harris’ It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health: “Abortion, homosexuality, nudity, religious viewpoint, sex education, unsuited to age group”
  • Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “Offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group”
  • Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Beloved: “Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence”
  • Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: “Drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, and religious viewpoint”
  • J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series: “Anti-family, occult/Satanism, religious viewpoint, violence”

Even lighter subjects, such as supernatural romance novels, have some people up in arms. For example, last month, the pastor of the King of Saints Tabernacle in Cleveland, Texas, became incensed after he perused several shelves devoted to the undead in his local library. Rev. Phillip Missick told One News Now, “We’re responsible for what goes into the minds of our children and I thought, ‘What could be greater garbage than seducing your daughter into having a fantasy affair with a vampire?’ It’s crazy.”

Missick has demanded that “demon books be removed from the library,” something that staff are taking seriously. According to ABC Eyewitness News, his complaint prompted librarians to prepare a report for the city council to review sometime later this year addressing the issue of appropriate content for teens and tweens.

Yes, it’s tempting to titter at Missick’s reaction, but as Jones reminds us, censorship is no laughing matter. Last year, she points out, the ALA heard about approximately 300 efforts by local parents or community groups to remove books from a classroom or library. “We estimate that that’s only 20 or 25 percent of the total,” she said.

Even more alarming, the ALA notes that “since 1990, ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has received reports of more than 18,000 attempts to remove materials in schools and libraries for content” that some consider to be “inappropriate, controversial or even dangerous.”

The danger, free speech proponents point out, is that when these books are withdrawn, readers lose out on a potential opportunity to expand their worldview.

“Whenever I can, I try to convince parents that children need to be exposed to historical and social facts, even if we’re not proud of them,” Jones said. “I always tell them that books can teach their sons and daughters how to think critically and learn about realities that will help them later in life. Libraries should be the place where a kid can explore ideas and ways of being.”

In addition, Jones says that she stresses the positive impact that books can have on young people—sharing letters she and other librarians have received from patrons, thanking them for suggesting a text that, as she put it, “literally changed or saved their lives.”

Nonetheless, she concedes that it is an uphill struggle, with constantly emerging battles to be fought.

For instance, Bertin reports that another form of censorship has begun to gather momentum among parents wishing to shield their children from sex, violence, or other uncomfortable ideas: The notion that books can and should be rated in the same way that the Motion Picture Association of America rates movies. She cautions that this could eventually edge some books out of circulation.

“This has the patina of child friendliness,” Bertin said. “But the question is, who will be doing the rating and what will it mean to say that something contains ‘sensitive material?’”

They’re important questions. As yet, however, they are unanswerable.

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