Few modern stories of censorship that we hear take place in the present place and time. We are told that censorship was a bad thing when the Nazis burned books; we hear science fiction horror stories of a future where reading is outlawed. Such clear-cut notions of censorship make it easy to defend civil liberties when it means cheering for the good guys at the movies. What takes real courage is defending civil liberties in the here and the now, and that is exactly what the American Library Association is doing by declaring this week National Banned Books Week. The Yale College Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is proud to take this opportunity to focus on the slow loss of civil liberties not just in censorship, but across the nation as well.
According to the ALA, in 2005, more than 100 novels, ranging from Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” were challenged or banned in American public schools. Often, these attacks on free speech came under the guise of protecting the youth from a host of ills, such as “mature themes,” “adult language” and “violence.” These nebulous terms were considered just cause for restricting the free flow of ideas. Although there is no need to teach fifth graders to build bombs, as “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” does, one can hardly claim that the condemnation of bigotry in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is damaging the nation’s youth.
What some consider frightening or socially unacceptable ideas should be presented and discussed. Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” does include violent and disturbing scenes of rape. But it is a valuable presence in a high school curriculum because it provides an opening for important discussions about morality. By raising difficult issues and working through them, students emerge with a better grasp not only on their own views but with an understanding of other ways of thinking. Classroom debates are a teaching tool for tolerance.
As college students, it is easy for us to dismiss the banning of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Of Mice and Men” or “The Scarlet Letter” as an issue solely for librarians and adolescents. Yet, for banned book week, it is important to consider what richness we might have missed out on while growing up because of censorship. What would elementary school have been without Judy Bloom? Or high school without “Brave New World” or “1984”? These books provide a different perspective on the world, further demonstrating that we do not live in a homogeneous society. If we value this diversity, it is important to protect the freedom to hold unpopular opinions or write about controversial ideas. The rise of new ideas depends upon such differences in outlook.
In July, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Miami-Dade school board over their removal of the book series “A Visit to …” from elementary school classrooms. They were removed after a parent objected to the portrayal of Cuban life in one of the books. Though seemingly minor, the censorship involved the removal of what an expert panel found to be an age-appropriate presentation of diverse cultures and traditions. By removing this exposure to other nations and peoples, the school board is making it more difficult to foster what ought to be one of the main goals of a modern classroom — cultural understanding.
We should take Banned Book Week as an opportunity to step back from our assumptions of normalcy and intellectual freedom and to critically observe how much our civil liberties are under attack. It should alarm citizens that the United States, once a supposed beacon of the free world, still has a serious problem with censorship. But book bans only highlight a larger truth — that defending civil liberties requires constant vigilance. The law is always in flux, and whether it’s an issue of censorship, domestic spying or the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, we must be aware of and involved in the actions of our government.
Liberty requires dedication. So this week, in honor of the occasion, grab that old copy of “Catcher in the Rye” and enjoy the freedom that makes this country what it is.
Kira Newman is a freshman in Silliman College. She is a member of the Yale College chapter of the ACLU.