The lessons of McCarthyism have not brought censorship and witch-hunts to an end, so support Banned Books Week.
Free speech and censorship share an uneasy relationship. Despite the guarantees of the First Amendment, many use it as a bludgeon, as if beliefs entitle one to dictate how others should think or act.
Banned Books Week was launched in 1982, in response to surging challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. It is the only national celebration of the freedom to read and to express unorthodox or unpopular opinions. It also stresses the importance of ensuring the survival of controversial viewpoints to those who wish to know them.
More than 11,300 books have been challenged, removed from shelves and actually burned since then. When Alaska’s Sarah Palin (the Republican nominee for vice-president in 2008) was the mayor of Wasilla, she fired the town librarian for refusing to remove books from the shelves.
Though many ideas trigger the hostility of censors, sex, offensive language and religion top the list. Of 2018’s eleven most-banned books, six were cited for LGBT content and three for religious or cultural reasons. Click here to see the full list and the reasons for the challenges. Huckleberry Finn, Green Eggs and Ham, The Catcher in the Rye and the Harry Potter titles are Banned Books hall-of-famers.
Never afraid to sally forth into cultural wars, the Roman Catholic Church, which visited the horrors of the Crusades and the Inquisition upon humanity and remained notoriously silent during the Holocaust, launched its own censorship arm in 1933. Called the Legion of Decency, it focused on films. (The church also maintained a list of banned books.) Sometimes a specific person — Mae West and Ingrid Bergman were two — was declared anathema. Once a year, parishioners were asked to take an oath during mass not to view films or actors on the Legion’s list or to patronize theaters that showed those films.
In 1966, the Legion was renamed the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, and it established its own rating system — including the dreaded “Condemned” category. Viewing Taxi Driver, Carrie, Last Tango in Paris, High Plains Drifter, Rosemary’s Baby, The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Producers imperiled one’s soul. Changing public morality, resistance from Hollywood, Supreme Court decisions supporting free speech and waning church authority ended its interference with the film industry around 2010.
Others were ready to take up the mantle of censorship. One of the most vocal is Morality in Media (renamed the National Center on Sexual Exploitation in 2015), a cunning and scurrilous organization that preys on fear and ignorance. Obsessed with sex, it deliberately blurs the distinction between constitutionally protected viewing/reading material and obscenity, which is not constitutionally protected. The organization’s “most wanted” list includes not only books, but the American Library Association, Facebook, YouTube, Verizon, and the U.S. Department of Justice (among others).
It is eminently understandable that parents wish to protect their children from harm. If a child’s reading or viewing material causes worry or concern, the parents’ first recourse might be to read or view the material themselves, rather than rely on what censors tell them. Or talk about the subject matter with their kids. Of the top 10 leading causes of child death in the U.S., firearm homicide and suicide is #2. That is worth worrying about.
It is important that we not lose sight of groups and organizations that relentlessly chip away at our freedoms. There are many ways you can support the freedom to read; here are some. Banned Books Week is Sept. 22-28. Visit the website to learn more, or to find out how you might participate. The website also offers a handbook you can view online or download. Permission is granted to reproduce it.