Kent Oliver | July 8, 2010
From post on Forbes.com:
“Last January the world lost one of its best and most reclusive authors, J.D. Salinger. Catcher in the Rye is widely recognized as one of the finest novels of the 20th Century. Salinger’s tale of a tormented teen is also one of the most challenged and banned books since its publication in 1951.
Attempts to censor books like Catcher often focus on the issues of sexuality and profanity, about which young adults are apparently not supposed to read, despite the fact that we all live through those issues. Herein lays the dichotomy and absurdity of the censor’s viewpoint: While the First Amendment guarantees Americans the freedom of speech and press, the censor asserts an urgent need for protection from our own ideas about the very lives we live.
The American Library Association’s list of Top 100 Challenged Novels of the 20th Century reads like a college-level best literature bibliography. (A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.) Among the titles are The Great Gatsby,The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, 1984, Of Mice and Men, Gone with the Wind and In Cold Blood. But the Top 100 list is only a partial view of world’s-best literature that would have been restricted or retracted if censors had their way. For example, among the top 10 challenged books in 2008 was a children’s picture book calledAnd Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. Censors labeled this charming story of two male zoo penguins that adopt an orphan penguin as anti-family with homosexual undercurrents. Interestingly, the story is based on an actual occurrence and has a happy ending with the formation of a loving family. Apparently censors were unable to look beyond gender to celebrate the stability of this family unit.
The ALA tracks hundreds of book challenges and censorship attempts every year; they occur daily in public and school libraries. Historically, book banning has occurred during periods of political partisanship, ethnic fear and religious fervor. Recent attacks in the U.S. have focused primarily on sex, homosexuality and violence: “Sexually explicit language” and “offensive language” are oft-cited reasons for recent challenges. Many of the state laws seeking to restrict what children may read demonstrate a lack of tolerance and prohibit access to ideas based on a lowest-common-denominator viewpoint.
As individuals and parents it is certainly appropriate that we set boundaries for reading for ourselves and our children. What is not appropriate is when individuals set limits for other people. As Supreme Court Justice William Brennan said in the 1989 United States flag burning decision, Texas vs. Johnson, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
To that end, librarians, publishers, booksellers and attorneys have created the Freedom to Read Foundation. The Foundation promotes and defends the right to express and consider ideas without governmental interference; to foster institutions wherein every individual’s First Amendment freedoms are fulfilled; and to support the right of libraries to distribute any work they legally acquire.
Indeed, libraries and schools have failed their jobs if book collections don’t include information, ideas or topics that each of us might find uncomfortable at some level. Our society’s beliefs and ideas are diverse–libraries in their support of intellectual freedom must provide the broadest access to divergent viewpoints and materials. These viewpoints are not always popular, nor do they need to represent the majority’s opinion, but they must be available to those who wish to read them, whether to support or decry them.
When censorship occurs, fewer books containing controversial topics become available in bookstores and libraries. Authors then become less able to sell controversial work to publishers, who reject them due to anticipated challenges in selling the book. That in turn discourages anyone from pursuing thought-provoking topics or potentially groundbreaking ideas in the first place–ultimately limiting what readers have the opportunity to consume. A vanilla fabric is created on a gray horizon.”