Saturday, October 3, 2009

BBW Wrap-Up

Another Banned Books Week is coming to a close, and I think it's time for a wrap-up. As I've said elsewhere, I think it's unfortunate that we still need an annual reminder that censorship is an active problem in these United States in this 21st Century. But given that censorship still happens in the here and now, it's great that we HAVE Banned Books Week to raise awareness of the problem.

I have to say I'm appalled at the way censorship proponents have belittled the value of, and need for, a program that calls attention to this problem. I'm thinking specifically of Ms. Maziarka, SafeLibraries, and Annoyed Librarian, as well as other contributors these bloggers have quoted.

These censors have tried to claim that the ONLY definition of censorship is "prior restraint." That is, restricting the distribution of ideas amounts to censorship ONLY if the government prevents a book from being published in the first place. To be sure, such an extreme situation IS censorship, but it is not and never has been the ONLY definition of censorship, and claiming otherwise is just illogical. Most of us can easily think of many serious infringements on Free Speech that are not prior restraint but are censorship nonetheless. An old-fashioned book burning is not prior restraint. Stealing objectionable books from the library isn't prior restraint. Keeping books on evolution out of a public school district isn't prior restraint. But all of these are censorship -- an attempt to control public discourse by limiting access to information and ideas -- and all have happened in America in recent years.

An important part of the censors' argument is that situations like those in Leesburg, FL, and West Bend, WI, can't be censorship because the restriction and/or removal is not being carried out by the government. This is ridiculously and obviously untrue. A public library, and a public school library, are both government agencies. Librarians in both institutions are government employees, and both groups report to elected officials, whether to a school board or a city council or a board of county supervisors. If those libraries carry out any action to remove, restrict access, or discourage readership of protected speech, that action is government action. To be sure, the demands for censorship in West Bend and Leesburg don't originate in government, and don't originate in the libraries themselves, but come from misguided private citizens. But those private citizens aren't the ones who are going to have to consider the law, make a formal decision, or take the censorious action. It is the government agency that ultimately must to the deed, and the private citizens are asking the government to censor on their behalf.

This is a critical point, and one the censors work hard to draw attention away from. They act as if the tax-funded nature of such institutions somehow narrows Free Speech, as if tax-funded institutions were required to pander to the most sensitive and restrictive citizens. The truth is quite the opposite. As creatures of government, in a secular state and pluralistic democracy, those tax-funded institutions are bound by law, not just ethics, to a very high standard of respect for Free Speech. They are duty-bound to neutrality with respect to point-of-view, and to protect what the law classifies as protected speech.

A very large portion of the modern-day censorship problem revolves around the inability, or simple refusal, to comprehend the distinction between public and private. A private individual doesn't have to read a book he or she doesn't approve of, nor keep such a book at home. A private group, such as a church, can remove from their own library shelves whatever they want, and nobody can cry censorship. But public space is bound by different rules. A parent can say, "I don't want my kids to read this book," and can enforce that opinion in their private space by supervising what the children read. A parent can stand up in public and say, "I don't want my kids to read this book, and you shouldn't let your kids read it either." That's an exercise of Free Speech. But Freedom of Speech has never meant that you get to force other people even to listen to you, let alone agree with you or obey you. It is censorship, plain and simple, for a parent to say to the library, "you must implement my personal opinon as public policy, you must deny other people's children what I would deny to mine."

The most twisted and irrational argument that the censors have published this week is their claim that small, local restrictions of access are just too small in scope or scale to amount to censorship. Just removing or restricting a book in one library doesn't mean you can't get the book somewhere else, so it isn't really censored, they say. The law clearly disagrees. In Board v. Pico the US Supreme Court made it quite clear that a school board can NOT remove books just because they object to the ideas in them, even if it's only a handful of books in a small school district nobody in the rest of country ever heard of. In Case v. Unified School District a District Court held that the removal of just one title from a library was an illegal infringement on Free Speech, even though the book was available in local stores. These and others were cases of censorship on a very small scale, but the courts took them seriously enough to allow them to be litigated, to order the books back on the shelves, and to chastise the censors for infringing on the Free Speech rights of others.

There are some kinds of materials that are not protected speech. Books that are obscene, in a legal sense, can be removed or restricted without infringing upon the First Amendment. Where minors are concerned, this can be broadened somewhat to restricting materials that are "harmful to minors," a term that still hinges very much on the concept of obscenity. The censors try to turn this into some kind of carte blanche, as if merely chanting the magic words "protecting children" nullified any and all Free Speech concerns. Again, the law says otherwise. The legal definitions of "obscene" and "harmful to minors" are difficult and demanding by design, and very few libraries shelve any materials that meet those criteria. I've reviewed nine challenged books on this blog, and not one came even close. I've challenged Ginny Maziarka by Email and on my blog to explain in detail how even one of the 40-odd books she objected to could meet those definitions, and my challenge went unanswered. I'm beginning that process now with the 40-odd books challenged in Leesburg, FL, and expect the same deafening silence.

Anyone in doubt about the need for Banned Books Week need look no further than West Bend or Leesburg, two towns that should be on the poster for next year's event, under the heading, "Don't Let This Happen to You!" These are both egregious examples, examples of somebody trying to inflict their personal ideology upon the public, examples of somebody trying to tell other people's kids what they can and cannot read. That is, they are egregious examples of censorship.

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