Misc. Monday: On Book Banning

Normally my posts are fairly lighthearted, and the ones that aren’t are more personal posts where I talk about depression and anxiety. I’ve thought long and hard about whether even to hit “publish” on today’s post, but I think, as writers, it is an apt topic for us all to consider.

Namely: Book banning.

I positively loathe all manner of internet debating, which is why I initially shied away from this subject. But it has been weighing on me for a while now. This post isn’t intended to spark a debate necessarily, merely a question of discussion.  A few weeks ago, an acquaintance on Facebook shared a link to this article written by a parent from Florida who inadvertently found the r-word in one of her children’s books.

In addition to agreeing with the article’s author that the r-word has no place in a non-fiction children’s book, I fully support the author’s decision to vocalize her concerns to the book’s publisher. She was exercising her First Amendment right to send a message to the publisher. This product has a problem! You don’t have to fix it, but if you don’t, I will stop buying your product, and many other parents will too.

The publisher, in turn, made its own statement by choosing to change the book based on the feedback of concerned parents. We hear your concern, we agree, and we’ve changed it.

So far, so good, in my opinion.

However, there was one little line in the article that virtually all the comments I’ve read are ignoring. One line that has nothing to do with the rightfully concerned parent or the appropriately apologetic publisher.

I did stop into the boys’ school library to see if they had the book, and the librarian offered to take it off the shelf. (emphasis mine)

Immediately upon reading the librarian’s alleged offer, my jaw dropped.

According to my novice research on the legality of banning books in the United States, public school libraries are not allowed to remove books from shelves simply because a group of concerned parents object to their content, because as public entities they must abide by the first amendment. According to everything I have researched on the topic, first a citizen or group of citizens must challenge a book, and only after lengthy review may a book actually be banned from a public library or public school library. Various statistics I’ve come across indicate that the majority of book challenges — well intentioned though they may be — are unsuccessful in leading to a ban from that particular library.

If anyone reading this post is a lawyer specializing in the first amendment, please correct me if my interpretation of the various Supreme Court rulings on public school book bannings is inaccurate.

So, without knowing if the author’s children attended a public or private school, I have no way of knowing if what the librarian allegedly offered to do was technically illegal or not. I would like to hope that this was a private school library, where the chain of command for challenging and banning books is not (presumably?) subject to the same laws as public school libraries.

And who knows, maybe the librarian didn’t actually offer to go so far as to remove the book. Maybe the author is exaggerating for effect, and what the librarian really said was, “Well, I can personally see your objection. Here, let me walk you through the process of challenging a book.”

If it was either of these two scenarios — private school library or exaggeration in the article — then I’m content. But if this were a public library and the librarian truly did even offer to remove the book after one parent’s complaint, then I must say I am quite disturbed.  In that case, I am in agreement with the mother’s objection to the word, and in agreement with the publisher’s reaction, but frightfully disturbed by what would appear to be the librarian’s unconstitutional offer to ban the book.

Tell me, what are your thoughts on book banning in general, especially if you do not live in the US and the book banning laws where you live are different?

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15 comments

  1. I’ve never been a fan of book banning. It implies that ideas can be controlled. While it’s nice to sit and think of all the horrible ideas we want to make sure we can control, the problem is that control mechanism can work in the reverse as well, and often does.

    The control is what one exposes themselves to, or allows their children to be exposed to. If you don’t agree with an idea or theme, put the book down and never read that authors work again. Banning it only proves you fear the idea. Don’t fear it, teach your children why you think it’s wrong. Expose the issue instead of trying to hide it.

    In some ways it’s like ‘protecting’ your children by denying them the chance to do certain things. 9 times out of 10 it only makes them want to do it more. Even if we don’t expose them to these ideas, they will find them. The impetus is on the parents to teach, not the system to censor.

    Liked by 5 people

    • 100% agreed. In virtually all cases where book banning is discussed I think it is absolutely the wrong way to go about things. (Although this does bring up the interesting question of where — if at all — does a line get crossed and banning is advisable? Does that threshold exist? I think it’s a difficult question to answer if a person concocts ridiculously extreme hypotheticals…)

      But anyway, as you say, the whole notion of suppressing an idea is about as easy as the notion of suppressing a cloud. It’s bound to seep out somehow, whether through a book or a private conversation or a blog or a TV show or something.

      And I agree that banning something is inherently giving that thing power. It actually reminds me of Harry Potter, when virtually everyone except for Harry refuses to say Voldemort’s name aloud, and he argues that avoiding his name just gives him that much more power over them. Dear Fiancé don’t have children yet, so I can’t pretend to put myself in a parent’s position, but as an individual I do definitely agree that, if you don’t like something, don’t look at it/read it/engage in it/buy it/etc.

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  2. I’m not American but I don’t know the book banning laws here in Canada…
    Like you said, people are free to contact publishers and request changes like that, but if nothing comes of requests, banning the book is not the solution. That’s not going to stop people from reading them. Instead, concerned parents should instead talk with their kids and explain why said offensive words are offensive and outdated.
    I’ve read a few blogs posts of people in their twenties who were raised in really religious households where Harry Potter was banned and so when these people finally make the decision to read them, they find out that it’s literally a book about a little magic boy at a magic school.
    I mean, I understand why some books are banned but banning books is not a good solution at all.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I definitely agree! As far as contacting a publisher regarding objectionable content in a book, I can’t say that’s something I would ever personally do, but I fully support people’s rights to do that. As you say, that’s entirely different, though, than banning a book. I’m not a parent, so I can’t definitively put myself in those shoes, but hypothetically speaking if my (non-existent) child were to bring home a book from the library with content that I found objectionable, I’d talk to them about it to tell them why it’s objectionable. It just seems so crucial to our development to learn to question things and critically answer why something is regarded as objectionable or not, like in the Harry Potter example you gave.

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  3. 1st, I don’t know how you crush out so much “completed” material for your blog. It makes me feel like a huge slacker, and I write more frequently than most of my writing friends.

    This is probably an unfair statement, but I would guess that only two, one or none of the school librarians in my county would know that they are violating a law by pulling a book that *seems* offensive.

    I’m one of those politically correct liberals, but I am also a big proponent on personal choice. I think things differ when it comes to children (meaning little children). I’m all for letting McDonalds serve whatever they like, but I don’t think it should be available in elementary school as an alternative to the lunch menu. In an adult setting, I’d prefer that there was a note attached to the book stating that the book includes a word that has fallen out of favor (remember, the word isn’t offensive, but it has turned into an insult).

    Not sure where I’m going with all this. I agree, if there is due process, it should be followed. But in (at least) a rural setting, it isn’t going to happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lol, I’ve always been told I write rather quickly. Now, if only I could stop procrastinating so much on my novel, because it certainly is not being churned out as quickly as all my other writing! 🙂

      You definitely bring up a very excellent point, regarding the difference between the technical law and the law in practice. I hadn’t considered that before, but you’re absolutely right. When it comes to perhaps “softer” (for lack of a better word) laws, I do wonder how much they are known and enforced.

      I think the question you bring up also brings up its own question — which is, regardless of whether a librarian is technically violating the law by offering to ban a book, is there a right and wrong about what that law should be? I’m certainly in no position to offer a definitive answer to such a broad question, but my gut leans towards banning being unethical.

      You also bring up another excellent perspective, regarding the audience of consumers. I think you are right in bringing up the point that what children are exposed to may warrant different consideration than the general population of adults. I do not have children yet, so I don’t want to overstep any bounds and speak on behalf of parents when I’m not one, but I would imagine answering such a question involves lots of tricky layers as far as who is responsible for what a child has access to.

      I definitely love all of the thoughtful dialogue that this post has encouraged! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I work in a library and we occasionally deal with this issue. This was a well written, though out blog post.

    I’m neither liberal nor politically correct. I’m also not a lawyer so I’m not sure of the exact laws. However, I do know that there is a process and that a librarian can not just remove a book from the shelf.

    If a book is challenged, there is usually a meeting with the library director, any interested staff and the person or people challenging whatever book is questioned. The library will (or should) take the stance that no book should be censored. Libraries should be protecting books.

    As a Christian, there are many books that I personally would prefer not to have on our shelves. However, I do not think the answer is censorship. If we begin censoring books just because we do not agree with them, then others may begin censoring books we do agree with. There is also something to be said for learning to read critically. Just because you read a book, doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. Sometimes we need to read just to educate ourselves on all sides of an issue.

    I think that we need to teach critical reading skills–something many people no longer seem to be able to do. We also need to be responsible parents and teach our children our own values so that when they come across materials, they can make an informed decision for themselves about the content appropriateness. –This also applies to movies, music and just about any other format.

    Each year libraries host a “banned book week” in which books are displayed that someone has challenged at some point in time. Libraries have historically protected these books and I believe should continue to protect books. http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top100

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  5. I heard that the where’s Waldo books were pulled from some student libraries because of the sexual innuendos! And I agree with taut kid of protection for young kids – just saying that the access we give them should be age appropriate and wholesome for their development – I also heard it was after a through review and many leaders who assess this access approved – and I think this is different from banning –
    I read your article and thought it was ok – I think the new version should have still noted Rosemary’s disabilities and good they chose to not use he word retarded – which I heard sends folks into a defensive anger mode- and I get they feel it is now viewed as a putdown – but they still should have mentioned her limitations because that is why the kennedys impacted this area so much!
    And with the librarian – it was impression she offered to remove the copy with the retard word in it – as a courtesy til the edited version came –
    Anyhow – great post!

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  6. In UK it falls under the ‘Obscene Publications Acts’ 1959 and 1964. The 1959 act says that an article or publication is obscene “if taken as a whole, [it is] such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it”. Publishing obscene material is a criminal offence. It also applies to electronic publications as well.

    Importantly, it isn’t up to an individual or pressure group to decide: there must be a prosecution and conviction in each case. Basically it’s pretty much do what you want. There’s also exemptions foe things like artistic merit.

    You can’t get a book banned for having a particular word in it per se, anyway.

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  7. Hi Charlotte Graham, in short (in general view) i would like to add though certain books(which are essentially harmful to a country or a society) may be banned by the Govt. Certain Instances are also seen where Govt bans books in order to ptotect its own political image hiding the idea published in those books from public.
    But i think due to some persons’ personal interest BOOKS should not be banned or removed from the shelf of a public library.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! I really appreciate all of the thoughtful dialogue. You definitely bring up an interesting point regarding the possibility of books being banned in the favor of a government. In the United States books are not banned at a national level, but I would imagine that in countries where they are banned at a national level, that would certainly be a concern!

      Thank you again for contributing to the discussion 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. On one hand I despise book banning. On the other hand, I’m curious about the outcomes of book banning – especially today. To what extent can book-banning be effective? What might we do to overcome book-banning? Surely, in any nation where state control is so great that it can effectively ban books, that same nation probably has other very significant problems that need to be overcome (censorship in general for instance). Just as we overcame prohibition in the states, I’d like to think that underground groups of “free readers” would pop up wherein those readers who disdain book-banning would find a way of reading, procuring, and promoting such banned books. I like the idea of people coming together for shared goals. We (people in developed countries) have become increasingly distant from one another (ironically, perhaps, in the face of the explosion of social networking).

    So, while I do not like book-banning at all, I’m curious to see what people would do to overcome it. Or, maybe we don’t care enough about reading to do anything. That would be just as telling, I suppose.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to comment! You definitely bring up a point I hadn’t previously considered when writing this, which is regarding the apparent effectiveness of book banning in the age of e-books and social media. Given how very easy it is to post virtually anything on the internet, I don’t see how a certain text could verifiably be banned unless the internet had equal limitations placed on it — which, as you rightly pointed out, would likely indicate even larger social problems.

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  9. I’ve worked out numerous reply drafts, but my replies keep trending toward the potentially argumentative realm and I agree with you that internet debating typically leads to nothing good. Having said that, I’ve greatly condensed my response and have to give you kudos for the research and good post and also for encouraging a deeper thought into topics such as this…it’s a very important thing to do.

    I am not a lawyer, but am a political and legal junkie (among other things). On its surface, the librarian in all likelihood is a publicly paid employee, and as such is a de facto representative of the government…specifically preventing him/her from removing this book from the shelves as it is a form of unauthorized/unconstitutional censorship. In order to actually ban a book, it must be challenged in the public arena by a specific person or a group of people and a hearing must follow. The 1982 Board of Education v Pico determined that school officials can’t ban or remove a book because they disagree with it, its ideas, or anything of the sort.

    The 1st Amendment protects speech/works of literature from government persecution and punishment. The only time censorship can come into play, according to the Supreme Court is in cases where speech/works of art specifically advocate violence, are intended to disrupt the public peace, or are obscene. The author of the book and the publisher are well within their rights to include any particular word in their book. But, that does not mean that they won’t face negativity for including it and/or loss of revenue because of it.

    To play devil’s advocate, this parent could have exercised her choice to just not read the book and let it be. I fear that as a society, we’ve become overly sensitive and similarly overly empowered to impose our sense what’s right and wrong (or our feeling of being offended) on other people. Case in point, Laura Mallory’s campaign to have Harry Potter books banned because of her perception that the books have Satanic undertones. There is a fine balance between just letting things go and using the public arena to push one’s own beliefs and ethos. For me, I don’t agree with the r-word use, because I recognize it as a negative word and potentially insulting to some people and also because it has played a personal role in my life. That said, and to put it simply, I don’t correct others around me when they use the word as I recognize that each person is entitled to their own choices and beliefs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • First off, thank you so much for the thoughtful reply! I really love the dialogue this post has sparked, and I’m quite pleased that it hasn’t devolved into the trolling/arguing I had feared.

      Also, like you, my post went through many drafts before this was published. I actually cut a lot of the original text out precisely because I didn’t necessarily want to rouse an argument. Generally speaking, I’m of the mindset that political correctness has gone way too far in our current environment, and that if someone doesn’t like a word, or a product, or a person, or whatever — they just shouldn’t buy/endorse/use it. I’m also generally of the mindset that pushing one’s own beliefs of propriety onto others can lead to nothing good, which is why I think censorship and book banning are generally inadvisable.

      For example, I absolutely loathe Tosh.0 (a very vulgar comedian with a TV show). He makes frequent rape jokes, which I personally find to be incredibly offensive and inappropriate. However — I have never once even considered writing to Comedy Central to object, or posted anything online about boycotting him. Here’s what I do: I change the channel when he comes on. The way I see it is, I personally think his brand of “comedy” is disgusting, so I simply don’t watch it. If enough people agreed with me, he wouldn’t even have enough of an audience for a show. But clearly enough people find him funny that he has a job. So, I’ll just stick with walking away when he comes on 🙂

      All of that said, I am very grateful to live somewhere where I would have the right to voice my objection to his comedy, if I wanted to. So, even if I wouldn’t necessarily have reacted the same way as the mom in the article, I fully support her exercising her right to voice her concerns.

      Thank you so much again for the wonderfully thoughtful comment. I also really appreciate the references to the specific Supreme Court cases. I’m (clearly) not a lawyer either, so it’s great to learn about these cases!

      Like

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