Banned Books and Forbidden Ideas: An Old Problem Brings Fresh Evils
Keynote Address, Public Librarianship in Contentious Times Conference, University of Michigan, September 19, 2023
Good afternoon. Thanks so much for inviting me to spend some time with you today. I’m honored to be here. I’m particularly honored because the invitation came through my old friend Cliff Lampe, and there is no one I hold in higher personal and professional regard.
Well, when you signed up to be librarians and information scholars you may not have known that you were enlisting to serve on the frontlines of a vicious cultural battleground. And yet here you are. And here I am with you.
In the last year or so I’ve given a number of presentations on the issues I’ll be discussing, so apologies to those of you who may have heard me make some of these points before. I’ve substantially updated and sandpapered my remarks, so hopefully you’ll hear something new or at least better expressed.
And I continue to look for fresh solutions to the serious challenges before us, although I sympathize with a quotation from my favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra, who said: “I wish I had an answer to that, because I’m tired of answering that question.”
I hope today to persuade you that four things are true:
First, that we are living through one of the most comprehensive, aggressive, well-resourced, and punitive censorship efforts in the modern history of the United States.
Second, that although these censorship efforts appear to violate basic principles of free speech, and may well do so, the law is more complicated and less clear than we might hope.
Third, that many if not most of these censorship efforts will nevertheless be held unconstitutional, at least in part—but for reasons we might not expect.
And, finally, that we have powerful arguments against these censorship efforts—and that some of the best of them have less to do with the law and more to do with common sense and common decency.
With all that said, let’s turn to my first point—that the current situation is a dire one, and of historic proportions.
The organization PEN America carefully monitors state legislation that limits, or prohibits altogether, the classroom discussion of specific subjects. PEN aptly calls these laws “educational gag orders.” PEN has issued a number of reports tracking this activity, which in recent years has skyrocketed.
The PEN reports tell us that between January and September of 2021, 24 legislatures across the United States introduced 54 separate bills of this nature. Eleven of those bills swiftly became law in nine states. Of the eleven laws that passed in 2021, nine apply to public schools, three apply to colleges and universities, and six apply to state agencies and institutions more broadly.
Those 2021 numbers are arrestingly high, and yet 2022 saw a dramatic increase. In that year, lawmakers in 36 states introduced a total of 137 educational gag order bills. And although southern and southwestern states have gotten most of the attention here, such bills have also been proposed in states like Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, and Rhode Island.
Bear in mind that the PEN reports only capture legislation at the statewide level, and so don’t account for lots of other and more localized activity. They don’t account for censorship efforts by town councils, university boards, and school districts. They don’t account for campaigns that political action committees launch against elected school board officials and university trustees who refuse to support bans. They don’t account for all the times that school administrators, teachers, professors, or librarians are harassed, intimidated, or physical threatened for their refusal to get on board with the censorship agenda. One of the things that we know for certain about this problem is that it’s worse than we know.
These statutes vary in their details, but we can identify certain patterns across them. They tend to be broad in scope and vague in their language and application—a point to which I’ll return later. Many of them target teaching about various aspects of race history, including the continuing impact of slavery on our society. Some of them specifically target Critical Race Theory, either by name or by rough description. Some go after any kind of diversity education more broadly. And some go after any classroom discussion of LGBQT+ identity.
In a report issued in August of 2022, PEN summarized its key findings regarding these statutes. It showed these new efforts to censor classroom discussions to be significantly more worrisome than past attempts. And it showed them to be significantly more worrisome in multiple respects.
First, past attempts to keep specific subjects out of classroom discussions have mostly been isolated frolics involving a limited number of states or small (usually rural) communities. When we think of such things, we may conjure up images of religious zealots in Dayton, Tennessee putting schoolteacher John Scopes on trial in 1925 for teaching the theory of evolution. But the current wave of censorship look very different.
As the statistics I’ve given you indicate, these aren’t rare and isolated efforts. We clearly have something of an epidemic on our hands. Again, those statistics only show us the tip of the iceberg—and the captain of the Titanic can tell you how that goes.
Second, the current censorship wave is more worrisome because past initiatives typically led to only limited consequences. A victory by the censors meant the removal of a book from a reading list or a shelf, at least for a while. But the current round of proposed laws includes punishments like heavy fines, loss of state funding, teacher termination, and even criminal charges. The PEN report finds that within the past few years these proposed laws have become “strikingly more punitive.”
A third distinction is that past censorship projects have usually focused on the K-12 context and legislators have largely stayed away from trying to dictate the contents of instruction in universities. But, as I noted, some laws in the current batch expressly apply to institutions of higher education. This puts them at odds with settled precedent from the Supreme Court, which more than fifty years ago recognized that the academic freedom protected by the First Amendment “does not tolerate laws” that “cast a pall of orthodoxy” over the university classroom.
If we shift our focus from schools to public libraries, we see similar patterns. In 2021, the American Library Association reported 729 attempts to ban library books and resources. These bans weren’t all focused on the same small group of books: They impacted 1,597 unique titles. It was the highest number of attempted book bans since the ALA began tracking them about twenty years ago. In September of 2022, the ALA reported that bans were on track to exceed the 2021 numbers, and they did: there were 1,269 documented attempts to remove books from libraries last year. And, as the Washington Post reported this weekend, public officials in some states are working to ban the ALA itself from libraries, disaffiliating from the organization.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that our great State of Michigan has remained immune from these impulses. In March of this year, the Lapeer County Prosecutor announced that he might file criminal charges against employees or officials of the area public library if they didn’t remove an LGBTQ-themed novel from its shelves. The prosecutor told Bridge Magazine that in his view the book could entice minors to engage in immoral acts with adults.
This argument is, of course, ridiculous. On the same reasoning, all copies of Moby Dickshould immediately be seized from libraries before they lure someone into violating the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Prosecuting a librarian for having this book on their shelf would also violate the First Amendment, as the ACLU quickly reminded the prosecutor. No charges ensued and the book remains on the library’s shelves, at least for now.
We can’t afford to laugh these things off. Threats—even objectively silly ones—can have a chilling effect on speech. And when librarians have to spend time looking over their shoulder for arrest warrants, we have arrived at a truly Orwellian state of affairs.
It gets worse. In August of this year, the Mason City, Iowa, school district decided to out-Orwell the Orwellians when it used the artificial intelligence tool ChatGPT to determine which books it should pull from its shelves in light of recently passed laws. Based on the chatbot’s recommendations, the board removed 19 books (which it did not bother to read), including such respected works as Beloved by Toni Morrison, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie—a frequently banned book and one I’ll mention a few times today.
They also removed Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, a critically acclaimed book that spawned an award-winning television series. And they removed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and fifty honorary degrees when she wasn’t busy corrupting our nation’s youth. The exercise shows why we call it artificial intelligence.
One commentator, responding to these developments, declared: “This dystopian news makes me nostalgic for the olden days, circa 2022, when folks just relied on a coven of religious fanatics to pillage their school libraries.” Ironically, however, even religious texts have fallen prey to this frenzied purge. The August issue of the Christian Century magazine reports that: “Utah’s second-biggest public school system removed the Bible from circulation” following a parent protest. “The complaint presented an eight-page list of objectionable subjects—with scriptural citations—including ‘incest, onanism, bestiality, prostitution, genital mutilation, fellatio, dildos, rape, and even infanticide.’ A district review committee decided to keep the book in circulation only at the high school level ‘based on age appropriateness due to vulgarity or violence.'” As I tell my students, we have many laws, but there is no law so certain and merciless in application as the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Some advocates of censorship have realized that they can save themselves the trouble of choosing which books to ban (or having a robot do so for them) by simply closing libraries altogether. The State of Michigan showed some regrettable leadership on this front when, last year, voters refused to renew funding to the Patmos Library in Jamestown Charter Township because of a controversy over books that address LGBQT+ themes. Staff members at the library were verbally attacked, threatened, and falsely accused of grooming minors for pedophilia.
A Go Fund Me effort to help the library stay open raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, but that’s not a long-term solution. In the spirit of compromise, the library has pledged to include inside every book a description of its contents that patrons or concerned parents can review. We’ll see if that resolves the matter: In November, citizens will vote for a third time on the library’s budget.
Other states have pursued this tactic at a much grander scale. In March of this year, for example, Missouri’s house voted to approve a state budget that would have slashed $4.5 million in funding for public libraries. The Missouri senate later restored the funding, but it can still be withdrawn if a library is found to have violated the bans now incorporated into Missouri law.
Now, I’m not a historian, but it had been my understanding that when one civilization wanted to obliterate another one it often did so by destroying their libraries. That we’re flirting with the idea of destroying our own libraries seems like the ultimate act of cultural suicide. I’m tempted to ask here if I can get an Amen.
There is one last respect in which I think the current wave of censorship is particularly worrisome. In general, prior efforts have tended to focus on specific books. And officials have usually offered as the reason for banning a book the fact that it describes events or behaviors inappropriate for young and impressionable minds. For example, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been banned because of its use of profanity and its descriptions of sexual activity, masturbation, violence, and bullying.
Of course, it’s true that public officials have sometimes targeted books for reasons other than their adult language or explicit references to sex or drug abuse. For example, officials have gone after books like George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 because of the dark and pessimistic visions of the future they present. That’s pretty ironic, because many of those visions are dark and pessimistic because they imagine a world in which books are banned.
But, still, most exorcising of ideas and banning of books has been driven by arguments about what we don’t want our children doing. We don’t want them having sex, drinking, taking drugs, engaging in violence, or using profanity. And we’re worried that if a book glamorizes, or even mentions, these things then our children will get ideas they didn’t already have (and haven’t routinely seen at home) and start acting on them.
I believe that the current wave of censorship differs from this pattern in an important and ominous way. For the most part, it doesn’t go after fictional narratives that anxious parents don’t want their children to emulate. It goes after who people are. And it does so through far-reaching prohibitions as well as through the blacklisting of specific texts.
Current censorship efforts seek to purge from classrooms and library shelves all discussion of social identities that don’t align with the version that the majority favors—and, not coincidentally, that favors the majority. They seek to forbid any meaningful discussion of how our race burdens (or privileges) our experience, how the social architectures of repression (and advantage) shape our society, how race actually works in the world as we find it (and as we have made it), and how race makes us who we are. The current wave of censorship efforts seeks to cast into the fiery pit anything that resists the official, majority, orthodox narrative.
Furthermore, as documented by last year’s report from PEN, these efforts have expanded in reach, increasingly targeting discussion of LGBTQ+ status. In my view, the attacks on those sexual identities goes even further. Those prohibitions don’t just require teachers to pretend that individuals in this population have the same experiences and opportunities as everyone else. They require teachers to pretend that these individuals don’t exist.
The move from obliterating books and ideas to obliterating human beings is a short step. In 1822, the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote: “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn people, too.” Those words proved prophetic when his works were among the first burned in 1933 under the Third Reich.
In sum, I believe there are compelling reasons to believe that we are living through an extraordinarily dark and dangerous time with respect to freedom of expression—and even freedom more generally. What does the law have to say about all of this? Well, it’s more complicated than you might think.
When people hear that a government entity has banned an idea or a book from a school curriculum or a library, they often think it’s a clear and straightforward violation of the First Amendment. That’s understandable. After all, a substantial body of United States Supreme Court caselaw supports the impulse that this is so.
For over a century, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that government restrictions on speech—based on the contentor viewpointof that speech—are rarely constitutionally valid. Our First Amendment embodies the notion that ideas, opinions, and even understandings of the facts should be allowed to compete for our allegiance, largely without constraint. We get to choose freely among them, and the government doesn’t get to make those choices for us.
I’m going to talk with you about three Supreme Court decisions that have touched on this concept. They’re foundational, even iconic, decisions within the field. And, for reasons I’ll describe, they complement each other.
The first of these is Abrams v. United States, decided in 1919. In that case, five individuals circulated pamphlets that were critical of President Woodrow Wilson, condemned capitalism, and urged workers to join in a general strike. By contemporary standards, these pamphlets seem harmless and they certainly posed no threat to the security of the republic.
Nevertheless, these individuals were criminally charged under the federal Espionage Act, convicted, and sentenced to twenty years in prison. A strong majority—seven justices—upheld the result. That’s a shocking outcome today, but this decision came in the early infancy of free speech doctrine and, up until that time, the Supreme Court had addressed the First Amendment largely by ignoring it.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a dissent that so directed the future of First Amendment jurisprudence and so carried the judgment of history that it can be easy to forget it wasn’t the majority opinion. The key paragraphs in Holmes’s dissent make for fascinating reading. He begins in a remarkable place, with the observation that persecuting people for holding opinions we think are wrong is perfectly logical. If we think their views are mistaken and dangerous, he asks, why wouldn’t we want to sweep them away?
But, he continues, “time has upset many fighting faiths.” As we think more, observe more, talk more, read more, and learn more, yesterday’s certainties become today’s absurdities. Therefore, he wrote, “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas [and] the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the power of the market.” Free speech scholars call this the “marketplace of ideas” model, and it remains one of the most influential concepts within First Amendment doctrine.
The censorship efforts I’ve described mark a radical departure from that revered concept. They skew the marketplace. They unilaterally declare certain ideas “losers” in the competition and remove them from consideration. Under these laws, we don’t get to do the choosing and thinking for ourselves; the government does that for us. What could possibly go wrong?
The second case I want to discuss with you is West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette, decided in 1943. In that case, a board of education required teachers and students to participate in a mandatory flag salute as part of their school day. When the children of some Jehovah’s witnesses refused, the school sent them home and threatened them and their parents with further action.
The Supreme Court rejected the state’s authority to compel the students to participate in the ritual. In a powerful opinion written by Justice Robert Jackson, the Court noted the dangers inherent in censorship. It declared: “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”
The Court went on to say:
“[F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion …”
It’s a magnificently written decision and the Supreme Court has quoted it on numerous occasions.
In my view, Barnette provides an important gloss on Abrams. Yes, we get to decide for ourselves what we do—and don’t—believe. But that’s not just because it’s a better way to find the truth. It’s also because doing otherwise—allowing the government to tell us what to think in the interest of some grand conformity or orthodoxy—is an offense to the individual human conscience. And the individual human conscience is sacred stuff.
Current censorship efforts stand in stark opposition to the reasoning of Barnette. It maintains that the government should dictate how our conscience operates as to a broad range of sensitive matters involving race and sexual identity. In this model, students must be exposed only to the accepted orthodoxy. And those who do not fall in line with that orthodoxy will be punished—severely—regardless of what their conscience tells them.
The final case is Whitney v. California, decided in 1927, particularly the opinion there of Justice Louis Brandeis. Brandeis’s opinion provides something like an inventory of all the reasons we protect free expression and allow people to make their own decisions about what to read and what to think. But, to me, one of the most striking aspects of his opinion is the connection that Brandeis makes between freedom of expression and the virtue of courage.
Please bear with me while I quote his opinion at some length. Trust me, it’s worth it:
“Those who won our independence … recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law …
“Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free [us] from the bondage of irrational fears …
“Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. [And] they did not exalt order at the cost of liberty.”
Brandeis recognized that protecting free expression will sometimes, perhaps even often, require us to be brave.
Importantly, this observation did not come from the perch of some privileged individual who sat comfortably above the fray, shouting down at those who are targeted by speech they find painful to suck it up and stop whining. Brandeis knew what he was talking about. The Court’s first Jewish justice, he often found himself the victim of virulent anti-Semitism, even at the hands of his Supreme Court colleagues. James Clark McReynolds—arguably the Court’s most odious justice, although there is keen competition for the honor—refused to speak to Brandeis for three years, to sit near him during Court ceremonies, or to sign any opinions that he wrote. Brandeis understood that liberty demands courage, and not in equal amounts from all of us.
Granted, schools and libraries may need to restrict student access to some texts and ideas based on age-appropriateness. But those decisions should be implemented with a scalpel, not with truckloads of dynamite. As the Supreme Court said in the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines School District, even K-12 students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The current wave of censorship, in contrast, demands that students and teachers check those rights at the front door.
These decisions, and dozens of others, signal that the current wave of school and library censorship efforts violate the First Amendment. And they may. But the constitutionality of these laws turns out to be a much more complicated matter. And that’s because some otherbasic and well-settled First Amendment principles point in the exact opposite direction.
One of those conflicting principles is that the government can control the content and viewpoint of speech when the government is the one doing the speaking. This makes sense, because the First Amendment exists to protect individuals and private organizations against the government; it doesn’t exist to protect the government against itself. So, if the government wants to say less (or, for that matter, nothing) about a subject it’s not censorship and it’s not a First Amendment violation.
Let me give you an example. Whenever we elect a new presidential administration, the executive branch changes its messaging. For instance, the old administration may have chosen to celebrate the glories of fossil fuels on the website of its environmental agency. The new administration may excise that discussion entirely, replacing it with an analysis of the threats posed by climate change. This doesn’t constitute “censorship”—at least under the First Amendment. It’s just the government deciding what it does and doesn’t wish to communicate.
That principle matters here because the current wave of censorship efforts largely restrict only what government employees(like public school teachers) can say while they are on the job and acting in the course of their employment. The Supreme Court has recognized that public employers have very broad control over public employee speech in the workplace. This principle therefore suggests that at least some parts of some of these laws may pass constitutional muster.
A second conflicting principle is that the government has considerable latitude to decide how to spend its resources. A state could conclude, for example, that it doesn’t want to dedicate any of its funding to teaching students Latin and direct schools to use their foreign language budgets only toward the teaching of Spanish, French, and German. In the same way, the argument goes, a state can decide that it doesn’t want to fund teaching about the value of diversity, or instruction in Critical Race Theory, or books about LGBQT+ identity, or libraries altogether.
It would be nice if the Supreme Court had decided a case that squarely addressed and reconciled all these colliding principles. But no such case exists. To the contrary, Supreme Court forays into these territories have generally been messy and unsatisfying. Most of them have resulted in badly fragmented decisions, with no single opinion commanding a majority.
Despite all of this uncertainty, I’m going to predict that lots of these statutes will get into serious legal trouble. But that won’t necessarily happen because they conflict with the grand First Amendment principles I’ve discussed. Rather, I think many of them will fall for less obvious and more nuanced reasons.
The first of these reasons is that these laws tend to be incomprehensibly vague. In many instances, it’s hard to tell who they govern, and when, and what those who are affected can and can’t say. That level of vagueness raises serious concerns not just under the First Amendment, but under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
You might say that a state can fix any such vagueness problems by just amending the statute. But I’m not so sure. Writing laws that are clear and unambiguous turns out to be more challenging than one might think, especially when the law seeks to regulate speech and speakers.
If you doubt that proposition, try your hand at writing a clear and unambiguous law that prohibits “hate speech.” Of course, you’ll have to begin by figuring out a clear and unambiguous definition of what “hate speech” is. Good luck with that.
Vagueness problems have already invalidated some of the recent censorship efforts. In November of 2022, a federal judge blocked enforcement of key provisions of Florida’s so-called “Stop WOKE Act,” which limits the teaching of Critical Race Theory (among other things) in public schools. Declaring the law a “positively dystopian” intrusion on academic freedom, the judge found that the Act violated not just the First Amendment but also the Due Process Clause because it is so vague in scope and application. In March of this year, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request to set that order aside.
Another reason these statutes will fall is that they tend to be overly broad. That is, they extend further than the Constitution allows. Again, the Stop WOKE Act provides an example. Florida may be able to limit, or even prohibit, the discussion of ideas like Critical Race Theory in certain contexts, for example in some government workplaces and state publications. But intruding into college classrooms to gag professors from talking about these concepts reaches way too far. The judge’s decision in that case reflects this concern as well.
Again, you might think this is a fixable problem. You might say that legislators can avoid this vulnerability by simply writing narrower laws. In my view, however, a common dynamic of lawmaking renders it hard—if not practically impossible—for them to do so. You see, the legislators at work here think they have a big problem to solve; they will therefore necessarily write big statutes to address it; and that impulse will lead them to draft laws with major overbreadth problems.
This happens routinely. Indeed, the dynamic is so commonplace that I have come up with a name for it. I call “Niehoff’s First Law of the First Amendment.” It is a quasi-Newtonian principle of absolute reliability that goes like this: For every action, there is an unequal and opposite overreaction. If you’re looking for an example, then I respectfully submit the Stop WOKE Act as Exhibit A.
Yet a third reason these laws will fall is that some of them violate the Equal Protection Clause. In a recent lawsuit, a collection of plaintiffs (including PEN America and Penguin Random House) sued a Florida school district over its decision to banish or severely limit access to certain books. In a fifty-nine page complaint, the plaintiffs accuse the school district of targeting books based on the viewpoint they reflect, in violation of the First Amendment.
But the more novel, and more legally intriguing, aspect of the complaint is that it also alleges that the school district disproportionately targeted books written by non-white and LGBTQ authors or that address topics related to those identities. As a result, the complaint argues, the school district’s bans also violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In short, the lawsuit claims that this Florida book ban isn’t just a free speech problem; it’s an equality problem.
Here at home, a step by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission raised essentially the same concern. In June of this year, the Commission asked Attorney General Dana Nessel for an opinion as to whether public school bans of books and LGBTQ pride flags run afoul of Michigan’ anti-discrimination statute. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the Attorney General has not yet responded; stay tuned.
Now, often when I give these lectures, I conclude by talking with the audience about the things that they might undertake to help with this dire situation. But I don’t need to do that with you. If you’re in this room at this moment, then you’re fighting the good fight. Thank you for that.
So, in closing, I instead want to offer you a small gift of sorts. It’s my list of the six most important reasons that banning books is a stupid idea. I don’t offer it to you because I think I’m telling you something you don’t already know—to the contrary, I suspect you know these things better than I do. But my various roles as a law professor, First Amendment lawyer, and editorial writer have drawn me into lots of conversations about book banning. It’s possible that those experiences have taught me something additional about which arguments seem to get the best traction with people.
Perhaps my little list will be of some humble assistance as you engage in those conversations yourselves. I think they’re powerful points. And, as I noted at the beginning, you’ll observe that these arguments have less to do with constitutional law than they do with common sense and common decency.
The first argument is that these laws don’t work and are a waste of time, energy, and political capital. If a school board or municipality finds some ideas worrisome and believes that keeping books off shelves and out of curriculums will prevent students and adults from accessing them, then they may wish to acquaint themselves with an amazing new phenomenon. It’s called the Internet.
Every idea imaginable waits there, available to anyone with a smartphone or a laptop, at no or little cost. The Brooklyn Public Library has made numerous censored titles accessible to anybody who cares to read them through its Books Unbanned Program. Given the realities of cyberspace, the banning of ideas from classrooms and the removal of physical books from shelves seems like a bad joke perpetrated by someone trapped in a Medieval time warp.
The second argument is that book banning often rests on misinformation or ignorance. The next time someone tells you about a book that should be banned, ask them if they’ve read it. I’ll bet not.
The history of censorship overflows with examples of people working to silence speech about which they knew little or nothing—and ending up looking ridiculous. Consider, for example, when Frank Zappa’s album “Jazz from Hell” received one of those alarming black-and-white stickers warning parents about the “explicit lyrics” it contained. There was just one problem: The album consists entirely of instrumental music and there were nolyrics on it, explicit or otherwise.
In those cases where aspiring censors do bother to acquaint themselves with the speech they seek to silence, they sometimes change their minds. In 2011, a Washington school board committee voted 3-2 to ban The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Then it occurred to them that maybe they should read it. It turns out they really liked the book and they reversed their prior judgment 4-1.
Third, book banning is hypocritical. Censors typically justify the practice on the basis that it protects innocent minds from dangerous and immoral ideas. But that justification fails if book banning doesn’t work—and it doesn’t—and if censors don’t even know what’s in the book they’re condemning—and they often don’t.
Book banning is always disingenuous. It’s always about something other than the public welfare. Usually, it’s about fear. And that brings me to my next point.
Fourth, book banning is an act of cowardice. It stands in stark opposition to the virtue of courage that Justice Brandeis celebrated in his Whitneyopinion. It’s impossible to reconcile with our claimed national identity of the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
I don’t deny that some speech should concern us, even frighten us. But these book bans have nothing to do with that sort of speech. May I suggest that we have become a timorous people, indeed, when we are set trembling by the dangers posed by a book called Captain Underpants.
Fifth, if book banning did work—and, again, it doesn’t—it would have disastrous consequences. It would deprive readers of access to some of the world’s great literature. The ALA list of most frequently banned books includes such critically acclaimed works as To Kill a Mockingbird, A Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, and Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.
Sixth, and finally, book banning works against the capacities fostered by reading, including our capacity for empathy. Reading takes the reader into other minds, other experiences, and other perspectives. It destabilizes our natural human tendency to believe that everyone sees things like we do.
Henry Reese was onstage with Salman Rushdie when the author was attacked at the Chautauqua Institution and he published a powerful piece in the New York Times recounting the experience. In his essay, he describes the remarkable response of audience members running to the stage and putting themselves in harm’s way to defend Rushdie.
Reese says that what he observed was the opposite of the so-called “bystander effect,” when individuals do nothing and rely on others to help. Noting that Chautauqua is “an intentional community of readers,” he argues that reading creates empathy and that the “intuitive response of an empathetic community is to help.” He labels what he saw at Chautauqua as “the reader effect.”
I think Reese has things exactly right. And his observation reveals what I view as the greatest evil of banning books and ideas. Not that it’s pointless, although it is. Not that it usually rests on ignorance, although it does. Not that it’s dishonest about its motives, although there’s plenty of that. Not that it’s cowardly, although it certainly fits the description. Not even that it asks us to deny the identities of our fellow human beings, although the current wave unabashedly pursues this agenda.
No, in my view the greatest evil of book banning is that it threatens to stunt our empathic development. And that’s a serious problem because, given the collective challenges our society currently faces, we need now more than ever the helpers, the people who rush in, the brave souls who will put themselves in between the freedom of the human conscience and the evils that would dispense with it. Banning books fosters passivity. It fosters fear. It fosters the bystander mentality.
And that, my friends, is how the world ends. Not with a bang. Not even with a whimper. But with an audience looking on—silent, indifferent, and inert while the assault unfolds. Leaving us, as Justice Jackson said in the Barnette case, with only “the unanimity of the graveyard.”
Thank you for your time and attention.