This week public libraries around the country are calling attention to the on-going national debate about censorship through their annual "Banned Book Week" displays of works that have come under attack for their depictions of some aspects of human behavior that someone has found objectionable and worth contesting -- in local school or library board meetings, or in legal cases, some of which have gone to the Supreme Court. Many of these are children's books, and often they are books about human sexuality or what we may euphemistically call life-style preferences. In our area, there was a controversy about a book called It's Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris, which led to a series of heated, public hearings. In the end, the library refused to remove the book from its shelves.
But there aren't any real predictors of what an individual parent or citizens group might find objectionable and ask to have evicted from school or public library shelves. In the past, The Wizard of Oz was purged from one school district because, it was argued, the book perpetuated an unrealistic view of life. But other books have been banished because they are too realistic -- like William Golding's Lord of the Flies, S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, or Judy Blume's Forever. One children's book editor reported that the only irate responses she has ever received about a book she worked on concerned a humorous Halloween dictionary that included cartoons of little devils and other monsters of the season.
The idea of the censor is quite ancient -- as Nancy Day explains in her book, Censorship or Freedom of Expression? Her clear, thoughtful study is a good place for a young person (or a parent or teacher ) to begin untangling the complex knot of legal opinion and belief that surrounds this subject. The urge to censor, as Ms. Day reports, has been with us forever, it seems, and is often utterly ruthless. Witness the Taliban. Thus, the First Ammendment to the Constitution, and the on-going enterprise of realizing a democracy. One hopes that in this continuing process we can also learn how to disagree. Difficult as that may seem, consider the alternatives, in which each of us granted a line item veto over whatever may offend us, or in which all that matters is compliance to someone else's ideas. Think of the empty shelves, and the silence.
Copyright 2003 © John Cech
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