The fall semester has come into full swing. We students have settled into classes and done our reading diligently. It’s beginning to get cold and football season has just kicked off. But, amid the business of the new semester, perhaps we haven’t taken the time to celebrate Banned Books Week.
Banned Books Week began valiantly in 1982 by, among other groups, the American Library Association, to protest the banning of books and to promote intellectual freedom at large.
“The lust to suppress can come from any direction,” Nate Hentroff wrote in his book Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. “Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.”
Books are banned by parents, teachers, school boards and even sometimes the federal government. With the potential for censorship from all sides, imperative is celebration of our First Amendment right to free speech.
The first major case of censorship in the United States was the 1873 Comstock Act, lobbied for by Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The act made it illegal to mail any “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials. Twenty-four states passed similar bans. While the laws were targeted towards pornography, they also affected medical textbooks and dime novels—which became, in effect, the first books banned en masse.
The Comic Book Scare in the 1950’s again made books the target of moral crusaders. Photographs remain of the giant piles of burning comic books from that era. The fear that the nation’s children would be exposed to the indecency and violence of comic books set parents on a rampage. Fredric Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent, raised anxieties about comics by pointing out what he perceived to be sadistic and homosexual undertones in comic books. In some communities, parents went door-to-door to collect and dispose of them. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held hearings in 1954 resulting in the Comics Code Authority, which regulates the content of comic books in the United States.
In 1982, the Supreme Court heard Island Trees School District v. Pico, in which the New York Island Trees school district tried to take library books off the shelf that were characterized as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-[Semitic], and just plain filthy.” The Court thankfully ruled against the school district and wrote in its decision that the school’s role as an educator must be balanced with the students’ rights of access to materials.
Most Yale students have read many banned books over the course of their education. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying was banned in 1986 by a Kentucky school board because of seven passages that made reference to God or abortion and used curse words such as “bastard,” “goddam” and “son of a bitch.” None of the board members had actually read the book. Other books include J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Boccaccio’s Decameron and James Joyce’s Ulysses. One of the most challenged books in 2007, according to the American Library Association, was Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Sarah Palin has recently been spotlighted for book-banning. As mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Sarah Palin fired the Wasilla librarian over the librarian’s refusal to give Palin her “full support” in banning a selection of books. In particular, Palin mentioned disagreement with the children’s book Daddy’s Roommate, by Michael Willhoite, a story of a young boy with homosexual parents. She, too, suggested the book should be banned without ever having read it, according to Laura Chase, the leader of Palin’s mayoral campaign.
Violations of the First Amendment are nothing new. We must act in whatever way possible to keep them as scarce as we can, especially during Banned Book Week. So curl up by the fire with your favorite copy of Catch-22 or Lord of the Flies. Exercise your right to read and, this week, celebrate Banned Books Week.