Celebrate the Freedom to Read

It is my favorite time of the year. No, not back to school, although I am sure that if I had school-aged kids that would rank pretty high on my list! It is a librarian-ish kind of holiday – Banned Books Week, September 22 – 28, 2013.  Actually, Banned Books Week (BBW) is not just limited to librarians and libraries, it is a cause taken up by the entire “word” community – teachers, booksellers, publishers, authors, and journalists all have a stake in the movement that aims to eliminate censorship. BBW is about keeping reading options open for readers of all ages.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects freedom of speech – including the written word – but the United States Supreme Court has historically struggled with exactly what can and cannot be considered protected. Much of their struggle centers on defining the parameters of what is inflammatory, offensive, or obscene. People have different beliefs, experiences, and tolerances so there can be no one-size-fits-all definition. Perhaps Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described the problem of defining best in his concurring opinion in the 1964 decision of Jacobellis v. Ohio: “I know it when I see it...”   

Why are books challenged (the first step in banning)? There are four main reasons given when demanding a book be removed from schools and public libraries - that the material contains: violence, objectionable language, is sexually explicit, and that it is unsuitable for the intended age group. According to the American Library Association, "books usually are challenged with the best intentions—to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas and information."  All types of people of all persuasions have challenged books throughout history.  Many times their point of view is understandable, but the restriction of access for others is censorship.

One of my favorite lines in the Jacobellis v. Ohio decision is ‘A work cannot be proscribed unless it is "utterly without redeeming social importance…"’  So many of the books that have been challenged are considered literary classics – the current top five classics are:
1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

Each of these titles reflects the society of their time, and helps put history into the context of the respective eras.

- Carolyn A.

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association


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