On Censorship, the 2000 Version
September 22, 2000
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," "The House of Spirits," "The Bean
Trees," "The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe," "The Diary of Anne Frank,"
"The Color Purple," "Hamlet," "Of Mice and Men," parts of The Bible,
"It's Me, God, Margaret,"" "The House on the Prairie," "Arabian Nights,"
"The Age of Reason," and, oh yes, Harry Potter's four volumes.
This is not a recommended reading list for a literature class, although
it might well be. It is not a list of current best sellers. It is a
list of 17 of the 1375 books which have been protested or banned from
libraries and schools over the years, including practically all the
classics. These are books which somebody somewhere thought you and I
should not be allowed to read.
Next week is "Banned Books Week 2000." Once a year booksellers,
librarians, journalists and publishers sponsor "Banned Books Week --
Celebrate the Freedom to Read." This week long observance celebrates
our freedom to read anything we want any time we want without having the
censor take our books away from us, the freedom to explore ideas without
limit, the freedom to be in a minority and know that we have the same
right of expression as the majority -- and yes, the freedom to read bad
books as well as good ones and the judgment to know the difference.
Thought control is not an American idea. The writings of Homer and
Aristophanes were suppressed in Greece in the 4th century B. C. and
Socrates drank the hemlock because he was, "corrupting the young with
ideas of freedom." Dante's "Divine Comedy" was publicly burned in Italy
and Galileo was forced to recant on his knees the thesis that the
planets circulate around the sun, although it is said that he whispered
under his breath, "But they do."
Intellectual freedom distinguishes the human from other forms of life.
That is the real fear of the censor, the free flow of ideas.
Censorship destroys the freedom of the mind.
And then there are the children. The phrase-of-the-day is "we must
protect the children." Of course we must protect the children -- from
hunger and violence and cold and disease -- but not from books, and
certainly not by censoring library books other parents want their
children to read. Clare Boothe Luce said, "Censorship, like charity,
should begin at home, but unlike charity it should end there."
And now, with the advent of computers, another attempt at censorship
has reared its ugly head. It is called filtering.
Possibly the most profound change in the intellectual landscape in
centuries is the advent of the World Wide Web. Suddenly we have at our
fingertips a library that is many times the size of the largest
libraries the world has ever known. It multiplies the dissemination
of information as much as the Gutenberg printing press did five
This massive electronic library of over 2 billion pages should be
available to everyone who chooses to use it. Public libraries are
filling that need for those who do not own personal computers. In
children's' departments they use search engines designed specifically
for children . But for adults filtering is censorship. It is also
impossible. The net is there -- for anyone who chooses to search in
it. We have to assume that literate adults have the judgment to know
what they want and the patience to dig it out.
As a lifelong civil libertarian, my files and my brain are overflowing
with material I have acquired over years from battles against attempts
to restrict intellectual freedom. The subjects the censors have
attacked have ranged from politics to free love, from language to
religion and in more recent years to sex, but I have never heard of
anyone trying to ban a book for bad writing. Who knows what challenge
the 21st Century will hold for the Censor?
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote, "Restriction of free
thought and free speech is the most dangerous of subversions. It is the
one un-American act that could most defeat us."
Go read a Banned Book. Pull up the Encyclopedia Britannica on the Web.
Celebrate your right to read.