Next 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 depicting aspects of human behavior that someone has found objectionable and worth contesting -- in local school or library board meetings, or in legal cases, a number of which have gone to the Supreme Court. Many of these challenges involve children's books, and often they are books about human sexuality or what we may euphemistically call life-style preferences. But there have also been controveries and heated public hearings about the appropriateness of other subjects for young peoople, such those found in a recent flood of books about bodily functions, and those in the air around a series of picture books by William Kotzwinkle, the author of E.T. about a particularly odiferous dog named Walter.
There are very few subjects today that are free 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, insightful 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 -- especially when driven by religious zeal or the ideological convictions of totalitarian regimes. Thus, the First Ammendment to the our Constitution, and our own on-going enterprise of creating and recreating our democracy. One hopes that in this continuing process we can also keep learning how to disagree. Difficult as that may seem, consider the alternative, in which each of us granted a sweeping line item veto, for watever reason we may choose, over whatever may happen to offend us in the public sphere. Think of the empty shelves in our libraries, think of the silence.
Copyright 2004 © John Cech
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