All Commentary
Friday, October 2, 2015

Is “Banned Books Week” a Myth?

Parents complaining about school curricula isn't censorship

As we wrap up 2015’s Banned Book Week (September 27 – October 3), Ruth Graham at Slate rightly takes the American Library Association (ALA) to task for trafficking “in fear-mongering over censorship, when in fact the truth is much sunnier: There is basically no such thing as a ‘banned book’ in the United States in 2015.”

That’s true, but Graham understates the problem with the ALA’s campaign of disinformation.

She points out that to maintain the semblance of relevance in an era of ever-freer access to books of all kinds, the ALA has begun to conflate the categories of banned books and challenged books. “The modifier ‘banned or challenged’ contains a lot of wiggle room,” says Graham.

A “challenge,” in the ALA’s definition, is a “formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.”

In other words, every time parents complain about a book they think is inappropriate for their children, the ALA records that as a challenge, and therefore the number of “banned or challenged” books ticks up for that year, increasing the general sense of alarm among supporters of free speech.

Last year, there were 311 books “banned or challenged” in US schools and libraries. “It would be easy to assume,” Graham comments, “that the literal banning of books is still a routine occurrence in the United States.

In addition to distinguishing a library’s actual removal of a book from the far more frequent (and uneventful) “challenges,” Graham further distinguishes between public libraries and school libraries.  “Even if you’re firmly opposed to ‘banning books’ — and I am!” she says, “it’s hard to argue that parents should have no right to weigh in on what their children read at school.”

Graham reviewed the ALA’s database of challenges between 2007 and 2012. After eliminating both mere challenges and book removals from schools, she found “the ALA documents a whopping four cases that definitively ended with a book being completely removed from circulation” during that six-year period.

“Suffice it to say,” she concludes, “there is no tidal wave of censorship inundating our nation’s libraries.”

While Graham is on the right track, her conclusion is puzzling. If we were really talking about censorship (a term she uses but never defines), would we consider our liberties safe just because the actual violations were selective and rare?

Unfortunately, Graham’s equivocations are typical of most conversations about free speech.

For libertarians, censorship is wrong when it is a coercive authority suppressing a peaceful communication.

If a website moderates its comments, that’s not censorship.

If a TV networks removes all the dirty words from a script, that’s not censorship.

If a private school decides to remove all references to sexuality from its library, or if a private library wanted to include only one religious perspective on its shelves, those would not be cases of censorship, however illiberal we may consider such policies.

Yes, they would be banning books. But private “bans” are not a violation of anyone’s right to produce or consume the prohibited material. As Graham herself notes,

We’re now living in an era of unprecedented access to reading material. If your local library declines to carry what you want to read these days, there has been no time in history where it’s easier for you to read it anyway.

Contrast these examples with the history of real censorship in the United States.

  1. In 1798, President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law. These included “An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States” making it illegal to oppose or resist any US law. This was defined to include writing or publishing “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the president or Congress — but specifically not the vice president, Thomas Jefferson, who opposed the acts as unconstitutional.
  2. From the 1830s through the Civil War, the US postmaster general refused to allow the postal system to carry abolitionist pamphlets in the South. (And because the government post office holds a legal monopoly — a privilege it defends aggressively — the federal government really was in effect banning antislavery literature in those states that held the most human beings in bondage.)
  3. In 1873, Congress passed an act for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” Popularly known as the Comstock Law, it used the postal monopoly to ban not only erotica but all literature about birth control. The great 19th-century libertarian Moses Harman was sentenced to hard labor breaking rocks at Joliet prison at the age of 75 for violating Comstock.

Contrast Moses Harman’s story to the “challenges and bans” in the ALA’s database.

Even within the lifetime of some readers, there have been famous cases of genuine, that is government, censorship:

  1. The publishers of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl were arrested in the mid-1950s on obscenity charges.
  2. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was published in France in 1934, but banned in the United States. Its American publication in 1961 by Grove Press led to obscenity trials.
  3. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs was banned in Boston and Los Angeles in the early 1960s.

(Notice that in 2015 we can link to Kindle editions of all three, allowing you to acquire these no-longer-banned books in a matter of seconds.)

When governments outlaw any peaceful exchange, it violates our rights and makes us all worse off. When private organizations decide not to provide a certain product — even pamphlets, magazines, and books — that’s the decision of those who need to manage their own scarce resources.

When we’re talking about state censorship versus private discretion, these issues are pretty straightforward. But they become murkier in the ALA’s domain, because the vast majority of American libraries are paid for through taxation.

When taxes pay for services, taxpayers will inevitably demand a say in which services do and don’t get included. That’s practically the definition of democracy. But when the service in question involves books, many free-speech advocates insist that this debate is per se out of bounds.

The ALA presents itself as championing freedom, but what the organization is really doing is waging a campaign of “fear-mongering over censorship” to make us feel grateful to them as guardians of our rights, when they are, in fact, the guardians of tax-funded librarians.

“Banned Books Week is well-intentioned,” according to Graham, “and it’s unquestionably run by the good guys.”

That’s a conclusion that relies on the sort of semantic “wiggle-room” that Graham takes the ALA to task for.

But it’s not in the ALA’s interest to promote better semantic precision, because greater clarity over the government’s unique role in the power to suppress communication might prompt more people to question the propriety of so much government involvement in our schools and libraries in the first place.