Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi "Celebrating Censorship"

By Blake de Pastino

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  Since 1982, the American Library Association (ALA), along with a throng of other literary groups, has set aside seven days every year for what they call Banned Books Week, a time for celebrating our constitutional right to read. And in true American form, the way they "celebrate" this freedom is by recalling all of the times it has been threatened during the previous year. Liberty is never so sweet, it seems, as when it is endangered.

That's why the ALA has just released "1997-98 Books Challenged or Banned," a catalog of all the reported incidents in which books have been disputed, restricted or forbidden outright in libraries and bookstores across the country. Citing 101 separate instances of censorship from May 1997 to March 1998, the report is well documented and comprehensive. And if you read between the lines, you just might learn a thing or two.

Foremost among these lessons is one simple truth: Censorship makes everyone look like a hypocrite. For example, right-wing conservatives--who are usually the first to complain about "big government" invading their lives--are frequently seen here pleading with the government to restrict which books Americans can have access to, presumably for their own safety. Meanwhile, left-leaning camps--which are often the most vocal advocates of literary freedom--turn out to be some of its most dogged destroyers, going so far as to sue school districts that assign books like Mark Twain's Huck Finn and William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily, because they are "hurtful" and "insensitive." For sure, censorship makes strange bedfellows, and the ALA is quick to note that threats to the First Amendment "come from all quarters and in a variety of political persuasions." And sometimes, to be honest, these "quarters" seem more like left field. Among this year's more unusual cases:

  • In Utica, Mich., the novel A Day No Pig Would Die by Robert Newton Peck was summarily banned because of a passage that depicts pig breeding.

  • In Pulaski, Pa., Janice Anderson's The Life and Times of Renoir was given restricted library circulation, because it contains paintings of nudes.

  • In Jackson County, W. Va., the local school board banned 17 books that it found offensive, including Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October and John Grisham's The Client, The Firm and The Pelican Brief.

Disputes like these might make book-banners seem like little more than fringe fanatics or frivolous busybodies. But the ALA report also sheds light on some more aggressive methods of censorship, ones that can be cause for real concern. Indeed, many organizations listed in the study--including government agencies--have gone to extremes to restrict the rights of readers. For example:

  • In addition to banning more books than any other group last year, the school board of Jackson County, W. Va. (cited above), is also alleged to have broken the law. County ordinances there require that book challenges be issued in writing to a review committee, not by decree from the school board. But despite their infraction, board hardliners upheld the ban in a vote of 3-2. Justifying the move, school board member Happy Joe Parsons said, "I do what's best for the kids, not the parents, not the teachers."

  • The school board of Franklin County, N.C., ordered that three chapters be cut out of every copy of the ninth-grade health textbook Making Life Choices, because they dealt with HIV, AIDS, parenting and contraception.

  • Last fall, a copy of Understanding Sexual Identity: A Book for Gay Teens & Their Friends disappeared from a Brownsville, Pa., school library, around the same time that the school board voted to restrict its access to students with parental permission. The local chapter of the ACLU has since threatened to sue the district, and the author has donated three replacement copies of the book to the library. The disappearance appears to be a case of so-called "stealth censorship," in which censors check out disputed books and destroy them, rather than issuing their complaint through official channels.

Accounts like these may make Banned Books Week seem like more of a time to mourn than to celebrate. But open-minded readers can take heart in the fact that this year's report is not all bad news. According to the ALA, the number of censorship attempts in the United States has leveled off in recent years, and, more heartening, the number of successful challenges are down, with fewer cases resulting in books actually being pulled from the shelves. In the end, they say, the most appropriate way to celebrate censorship is simply to pick up a threatened book and start reading. That, after all, is what your freedom is for.

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