What’s the Story Behind Banned Books Week?

By Joseph Tufano

This week is Banned Books Week, an annual event held at the end of every September to commemorate the freedom of information in classrooms, libraries, and bookstores. It was created in 1982 by Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom (arm of the American Library Association) after the Supreme Court ruled in Board of Education v. Pico that school officials couldn’t ban library books simply because they “dislike[d] the ideas.” The ruling was a victory for critics of censorship, but it felt like a hollow one; in the ten years leading up to that point, censorship had been on the rise in America.

In recent memory was the 1974 textbook protests of Kanawha County, West Virginia. Local school board member Alice Moore, who won her seat with an anti-sex education campaign, stirred up resentment over a state mandate calling for modern textbooks and updated reading lists that “portray[ed] the contributions of minorities to America.” On that latter point, Moore was especially worried that white children might read “Black vernacular” and learn “ghetto dialect.” She also worried about novels containing “obscene material” or promoting “anti-American” ideas like relativism and communism. James Baldwin and George Orwell stood side by side in her crosshairs.

Kanawha County saw months of demonstrations. Parents marched in the streets; a preacher called for a book-burning; on the district’s first day of class, 20% of students didn’t show. Things quickly turned violent. The KKK arrived in Charleston in support; two men were shot; elementary schools were bombed. The preacher who had called for the book-burning was also responsible for the bombs and had plans to target school buses full of children. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Meanwhile, Alice Moore had fled the county.

Judith Krug wanted young people to read 1984, not live it. And a big opportunity to combat the rising tide of censorship came in 1996 with the Communications Decency Act (CDA). If passed, “indecent” online content would be criminalized to anyone under 18. Krug led the opposition, arguing that novels and medical information—specifically sex education for young women—posted online would be seen as illicit under the broad umbrella of “indecent” material. And her challenge was upheld. A year later, in a separate case unrelated to her, a federal court ruled in Reno v. ACLU that the CDA infringed on parents’ First Amendment rights to determine what was “indecent” for their children.

To access and analyze information as you please, regardless of your age: this was Judith Krug’s credo, and she was staunch in it. Riding her success with the CDA, she challenged the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2003. Legal action later ended in a minor victory; the Supreme Court ruled that minors could get consent from a legal guardian to turn off internet filters on library computers. “Instead of relying on filtering technology,” Krug explained in 2002, “we should be educating children. It’s not only learning the difference between right and wrong, but how to use information wisely.”

Like her win with the CDA, the CIPA ruling was important, but incremental; the march to a more open society would continue as it always had: slowly. And Krug’s unyielding philosophy sometimes got her into hot water. After 9/11, the U.S. government was granted wide latitude under the Patriot Act to surveil library databases, which had once been legally protected from searches. Despite the fear and fervor in the air, Krug criticized this breach of privacy, even admonishing a Delray Beach librarian who had alerted the authorities when they learned one of the 9/11 terrorists used a computer in their library—a violation of Florida law guaranteeing confidentiality.

Still, Krug’s contributions to free expression and information couldn’t be ignored, even if former Attorney General John Ashcroft downplayed her concerns over the Patriot Act as “baseless hysteria.” The American Library Association (ALA) honored Krug with the Joseph P. Lippincott Award, and in a 2005 editorial in the Library Journal, her “service to intellectual freedom” was described as  “tremendous.” Years later, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression would give Krug the William J. Brennan Jr. Award for her “commitment to the marriage of open books and open minds.” Months after receiving the award, Judith Krug passed away at the age of 69 to stomach cancer.

Falling Action, or Rising?

By tracing Judith Krug’s fight from the 60s to the aughts, we might get the impression that school and library censorship was on the decline. And maybe it was; layer upon layer of stare decisis legal precedent had been established, and many major censorship battles seemed foregone. In 2005, for example, Republican state representatives and lawmakers in Oklahoma and Alabama tried to restrict schools from carrying books with “homosexual” themes; despite their varied approaches—sequestering books by age in Oklahoma and banning gay authors in Alabama—both bills failed.

But the movement to restrict controversial novels was undeterred and remains so to this day. Just last year, the ALA released their “Top 10 Most Challenged Books” list and the top spot went to George by Alex Gino for “LGBTQIA+ content” that didn’t reflect “the values of our community.” The next two spots went to Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You and All American Boys for messaging on race that was especially controversial in the months following the George Floyd protests. (All American Boys was banned because its “divisive topics” were “too much of a sensitive matter right now.”) If you continue scrolling down the list, you find To Kill a Mockingbird, another novel with a history of challenges over “racial content.” Its appearance on the 2020 list, however, is primarily for a different reason.

When Judith Krug was director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, she learned an important lesson on the limits of free speech among fellow liberal democrats. It was 1977, and together with ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, Krug produced a film called The Speaker, which followed a “library’s decision to allow a racist to speak.” What was intended to be a thoughtful discussion on free speech turned into the Association’s “most dramatic” moment. “It split the ALA wide open,” admitted ALA Executive Director Robert Wedgeworth. “There was a lot of pressure for me to fire Judith.” He didn’t, but the message was sent: “We had underestimated the fact that discussion of race was the one issue that people could not accept with respect to the First Amendment.”

To Kill a Mockingbird, along with Of Mice and Men, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, were removed from reading lists in the Burbank (CA) Unified School District after parents complained about the “use of racist epithets” by the novels’ characters and the “negative effect” their use would have on students. In Mendota Heights, Minnesota, administrators likewise “paused” teaching Of Mice and Men due to “community complaints” over language. School boards were now adding qualifiers to their free speech convictions.

But is it censorship to omit controversial novels from reading lists? For officials under fire, omission is particularly attractive because it offers plausible deniability—there are just too many novels to choose from—and for authors like James Baldwin, who had takes on race that are controversial today, they can be sidelined. And omitting Baldwin might be problematic when, according to Walter Dean Myers, former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, “students who do read Baldwin are more apt to attend elite or high-performing schools.”

For the equivocal school official who doesn’t want to be the one who banned a book but also doesn’t want to be berated, expurgation is another tempting tactic: by removing problematic words from a book and teaching students on this neutered version, officials can deflect criticism by claiming that they still teach the controversial content in the classroom. And yet, as some have noted, expurgation is self-defeating: it draws extra attention to the offensive material and muddies the author’s message, even admirable or progressive messages at the time of writing.

Despite the creep of free speech vacillators, are school boards still able to meet the needs of their students? Two ACLU reports conducted at a Rhode Island school seem to suggest that the answer is no. Just as Judith Krug feared, the school’s internet filters had been “deeply flawed” with no notable improvements for more than four years: in 2013, students were denied access to “innocuous” sites about climate change, and a science teacher’s day was derailed when the term “polyvinyl alcohol” was blocked because of the word alcohol; when the ACLU returned in 2018, political sites and even a dictionary were blocked. For free speech advocates looking around the country at other school districts, the theme was the same: school officials had seemingly abdicated their duties.

A Cautionary Tale

Some qualifiers are in order. Historically, books have been challenged or banned for age concerns, religious and political viewpoints, violence, racial animus, “damaging” lifestyles, and witchcraft. But when it comes to the amount of censorship directed at schools, libraries, and bookstores, the left and right are not equally at fault. In 2019, the vast majority of book bans were for LGBTQIA+ content; in 2020, this remained unchanged, though with notable gains for race-related content. The left arguably found their illiberal footing last year, but the right far outpaces them when taking the long view.

Additionally, of the censorship occurring today, methods vary greatly. The right grasps the illiberal mantle and continues to crusade against book access and free information for young Americans, dating back to Kanawha County. And the left? They sometimes consider banning a book like Huck Finn, but seem to retreat to a watered-down, PR-friendly censorship like expurgation, which conveniently skirts questions of legality around the First Amendment. And for now, school libraries keep the controversial books on their shelves, even when they’re not taught in class. Right and left should be called out for engaging in censorship, but their bad behavior is not the same.

At the same time, not all on the right act alike. Some Republican governors have bucked the illiberal trend in their schools. In April 2015, the North Dakota legislature unanimously passed a bill to bolster the “free speech rights of journalism students” in a rebuke of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which established that educators could deny speech if they felt it was “inconsistent with ‘the shared values of a civilized social order.'” A series of anti-Hazelwood laws followed in 2017 in politically diverse states: “Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts…” and so on.

We should hold steadfast to liberal democratic principles, yet we should also remember that these are complex issues with complex solutions. One older study found that “40 percent of schools were disrupted by challenges to curricular materials.” If still true today, it raises an interesting question about what obligations school officials have to their students to prevent such profound disruptions to their learning, and whether tools like expurgation are worth considering if we can preempt future disruptions. As for the unprecedented inundation of misinformation on the internet and the challenges this poses to filtering systems, we may need to rethink our approach to our information ecosystem.

On the other hand, we need to remember that the politics of the Kanawha County protests—“working-class whites stung by cultural elitism” and anger over political correctness—took decades before it coalesced into a populist movement within the Republican Party. Currently, Democratic Party leadership can resist their wings—the diversity of its constituency (ideologically, racially, religiously) may insulate leaders from takeovers from the flanks—but there are dangers to the slow normalization of “minor” free speech infractions.

“Freedom of thought and speech,” reasoned Palko v. State of Connecticut, “is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.” John Stuart Mill, shaper of classical liberalism, devoted the second chapter of his famous essay On Liberty to the benefits of discussion and the dangers of censorship. Dr. Brendan Larvor, Reader in Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire, explains: “The core of [John Stuart Mill’s] argument is that censorship prevents us from correcting errors by critical discussion. If a forbidden opinion is true, we lose the opportunity to learn of its truth. If a forbidden opinion is false, we lose the opportunity to remind ourselves why it is false.”

Reading, in the end, makes us better than we are: more empathetic and understanding, discerning and nuanced. This Banned Books Week, we should extend that courtesy to controversial novels, and to that critical moment before we crack the binding, when we are debating whether to open our minds and hearts to material that makes us uncomfortable, or to an author and message that we disagree with fundamentally or marginally. As a once banned, “anti-American” author put it, in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”:

“…literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes. Not only is it doomed in any country which retains a totalitarian structure; but any writer who adopts the totalitarian outlook, who finds excuses for persecution and the falsification of reality, thereby destroys himself…At some time in the future, if the human mind becomes something totally different from what it is now, we may learn to separate literary creation from intellectual honesty. At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”

Title Image Credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/sfL_QOnmy00