by Julie F.
“The novel, the story. the poem, are still subjected to a paradox with a long history: Fighting the written word acknowledges its power” (53). – from Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword by David K. Shipler
It’s easy to think of Banned Books in terms of the classics, many of which are read in high school and challenged at that level: Beloved, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Slaughterhouse-Five are three that spring to mind even before I look at a list. In fact, you can even listen here to Benedict Cumberbatch reading Kurt Vonnegut’s famous letter to the Drake County School Board after they banned and burned his masterpiece. Sherlock Holmes himself in support of our First Amendment!
But Banned Books Week involves so much more than the classics, and organizations like the American Library Association, PEN America, and the National Coalition Against Censorship are continually working “to promote freedom of thought, inquiry and expression and oppose censorship in all its forms” (from the mission statement on the NCAC website).
What other forms, you might ask? Award-winning musicals and plays, from Sweeney Todd to Shakespeare’s own Twelfth Night, have been censored and banned in recent years. The Defender Database of the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund has a comprehensive list of theatrical challenges and bans nationwide, and works “to educate everyone about the subjective and transient standards that have been employed by censor[s].”
Another form of censorship you may not have considered is the banning of books in prisons and jails, which is often arbitrary, with no efficient review mechanisms and no independent oversight outside of the prison system. PEN America has also found that literature about topics including race and civil rights is disproportionally subject to banning; you can read about their findings here and learn more about their Literature Locked Up initiative.
The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom provides a continually updated list of resources for those interested in crucial First Amendment issues. To begin, I would suggest reading the Library Bill of Rights and the ALA’s Freedom to Read statement, both of which advocate for our nation to trust individual citizens – not government censors – to make their own best decisions about reading, expression, and the free and open exchange of ideas. After all, as Justice John Marshall Harlan famously wrote for the court in Paul Robert Cohen v. California in 1971, “One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”
Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch. She loves gardening, reading, journalism, and all kinds of music.