Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech

In your personal life, in your own home, you may, if you wish, choose to encounter no ideas that frighten or challenge you. You need buy no book that you in any way disagree with. Should you come across something that upsets you as you read, you may set the book down. In your own home, I will not judge you for these choices. In my own home, I have done the same thing – I have put aside books that were saying things I did not wish to hear.

If you are a parent, you have every right to be involved in the life and education of your child. You have the right to be – and I hope you are – aware of what your child chooses to read. You have the right to forbid certain books to them, for whatever reason you have. You do not have the right to forbid any books to anyone else’s child. Or to a classroom. Or to a library.

You do not ever have the right to narrow someone else’s world because of your fear or laziness.

And that’s really what the impetus behind book banning – a practice I have absolutely no tolerance for – comes down to. Either fear of the ideas expressed in the books or a desire to hide from any potentially difficult discussions that exposure to those ideas might result in.

Literature, like people, sometimes contains ugliness, controversy, and ideas that are uncomfortable and challenging to contemplate. This is perhaps especially true in the literature that gets studied in classrooms, because confronting ideas outside of our own is one of the things that helps us grow and learn.

But what if it’s the same book? Shouldn’t a parent be able to protect their child in the classroom as much as in the home? I’m sorry, but no. Not at the expense of other children’s education. And if it is just that unbearable for your child to read the book and talk about its ideas? Then let them fail the assignment. Stand up for your convictions. If that seems like a difficult or harsh choice, well, having a moral code often requires making choices that are not easy, or that have consequences.

Because here is what freedom of speech means – that same freedom that allows a parent to stand in front of a school board and attempt to inflict their ignorance and fear on others – it means that fear does not get to decide which ideas are heard. It means that no one but the listener gets to evaluate the worth of the words being spoken, and it is the burden of the listener to turn away, to avert her eyes, to cover her ears, but it is never the duty of the speaker to be silent. It means that the most dangerous person is the one with the gag in his hand, not the one holding the pen.


  1. And that goes equally as well for those parents who object to the "racism" in Huckleberry Finn, those who object to various issues in Catcher in the Rye, and those who object to the "religion" in the Bible when it is taught as literature.

  2. I think what one has to do is think of the worst case scenario: Think of the worst book advocating the most disgusting ideals imaginable and ask oneself if it should be permissible.

    If this book passes the test then all other books should as well.

    Though what your post is really arguing against is an age limit on books; hmm, I can imagine many books that a child of say ten doesn't need to see *yet*: (when they get a certain age they can read whatever they want): but where and how would one draw the line? Should a line be drawn?

  3. Kempisosha - absolutely.

    VonMalcolm - I'm not, actually, arguing against an age limit on books. I'm arguing that censorship has no place in our educational system, schools or libraries. Ever. Full stop. For whatever reason.

    As I said, in personal life, if you feel *your* ten year old child doesn't need to see something yet, that is absolutely your right as a parent. But no one has the right to make that decision for anyone else's child, and that's what book banning and book restrictions do.

  4. I am sure out there somewhere there are a couple White Trash Rednecks feeding their child's head with Mein Kampf, Protocols of the Elder's of Zion, and whatever Anti-Jewish propaganda they can get there hands on: Are you sure this is a good thing? I or you or some grown adult might be able to filter out the crap objectively, but a ten year old? To me it's akin to handing a child a whiskey bottle and telling them to drink responsibly.

    -Though school is a different matter: books and ideas wouldn't be force fed down a kid's throat (hopefully), they would be presented objectively. -But IMHO there is at least an argument of whether even this is appropriate: Hustler at ten? Are we sure about this?

    (I'm playing the Devil's Advocate!)

  5. VonMalcolm - I understand that you say you're playing Devil's Advocate here, but in a way, you're making my point. Because in doing so, you're making value judgements about literature, and what is and is not appropriate to be read. The state does not and should not ever have that power, because once someone is allowed to say "these words are dangerous," then it becomes very easy to say that other words are dangerous. And the only way "danger" gets decided is by people's value judgements.

    I encourage you to take a look at the American Library Associations list of frequently challenged books: http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/banned/frequentlychallenged/21stcenturychallenged/index.cfm#2010

  6. -But we are also talking about kids here: they do not have the same rights as adults; they can't drive, vote, enlist, drink, go to an X-rated movie, etc. Their freedoms are restricted so restricting certain literature to *them* is at least up for debate IMHO.

    Though I get your point that such restrictions are a slippery slope. -And I completely agree with you that in public libraries no such restrictions should exist -adults should be able to read what they want -kids on the other hand. . . ????

  7. --VonMalcolm--Come back again tomorrow, as I think there will be another post on this topic that will interest you!