The library at my school is crisscrossed with yellow police tape. Several shelves of books are cordoned off like a crime scene. It’s a catchy illustration of Banned Books Week, an annual awareness program to highlight the importance of intellectual freedom and the dangers of censorship.
Begun in 1982 by the American Library Association, Banned Books Week has a special emphasis on encouraging students, their teachers, and parents to discuss the First Amendment. Not surprisingly, almost half of the book challenges are made at schools and school libraries by parents. The most frequent reasons for the challenges are objections to language and sexuality. In fact, eight of the 10 most often challenged books last year had LGBT characters or mentioned sexuality in some way.
I have great sympathy for parents who don’t want their children exposed to bad language and topics beyond their maturity level. When my sons were young, I offered them guidance in the choice of books and other entertainment.
But I would never presume to make decisions for other people’s children, and that’s what censorship does.
School media specialists are tasked with offering a wide variety of books for students of all abilities and interests. A library collection that doesn’t include controversial or thought-provoking material is impossible. Indeed, even the most anodyne books have been challenged. For example, “Little Red Riding Hood” came under fire for mentioning a bottle of wine in Grandmother’s goodie basket.
Likewise, English teachers use professional judgment to select literary works that engage students in meaningful, authentic discussions. Literature is our secret weapon – not to indoctrinate but to teach critical thinking.
Everything my students read this week has been challenged or banned somewhere. I wish I could say I deliberately made my selections to coincide with Banned Books Week, but I’m not that clever, and the sad reality is that most good literature is provocative enough to offend someone. What were the challenged works my seniors were exposed to this week? “Macbeth” and “The Book of Job” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
By an uncanny coincidence, the First Amendment is a hot topic right now. My Twitter feed is flooded with heated denunciations or applause for protesting athletes. On Facebook I’ve seen debates about whether or not students are legally required to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance (they aren’t – a Supreme Court case in 1943, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, established the rights of students to abstain from saluting the flag or participating in the pledge). One of my students asked me what the election of extreme rightwing xenophobes to the German Parliament this past Sunday portends for democracy as an institution.
If that seems like a wild leap from the freedom to read to the dangers of the rise of authoritarian regimes, you haven’t read Orwell’s “1984.” Or “Animal Farm.” Or Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” or Baldwin’s “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” or Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” or Miller’s “The Crucible,” all well-regarded literature that are familiar pieces in American high schools.
The freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment – of religion, speech, the press, assembly, petition – ensure our freedom to read. Like all freedoms, we can lose it if we aren’t careful. This week is as good a time as any to remember that.
McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.