Freedom to Read

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Throughout the history of literature there have been countless examples of classic novels that have been challenged and, in some cases, even banned in public education. RL Stine, author of the Goosebump series, told the Atlantic Wire: “It is a badge of honor to have people try to ban your books from schools and school libraries, only because it means your books have become popular and are being noticed. Unpopular books seldom get banned.”

However, the censorship of expression in literature is a slippery slope to a dangerous set of consequences.

Those in favor of banning certain books do not feel that way without reason. Some argue that since they pay taxes to provide books to schools, they deserve a say in what should be available. Oftentimes parents also make the claim that if a student would like to read certain materials, he or she can do so in a public library. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection for everyone under the law, and it also guarantees government to provide equal opportunity to services provided to the public, such as education. For some low-income families, the public-school library may be an individual’s only access to literature. In some inner city settings, there are no available public libraries, and in cities where there are public libraries, not everyone has the available transportation, but the state provides transportation to public schools.

If a certain state or school district bans a particular book that is not banned elsewhere, it creates unequal opportunity within a federally funded program. Some students will be given the opportunity to read and learn from literature that other students will not. This reality creates an unfair advantage to certain students and demographics and could possibly be used as an oppressive tool to keep knowledge away from specific groups.

People use a variety of justifications in their attempts to ban books. In some cases, people have accused certain novels of being anti-religious. According to banned-books.org, Catch 22, Frankenstein, Carrie, The Color Purple, Harry Potter, and many others have all been banned at one point or another due to anti-religious themes. Another justification for book bans is the use of racial themes. Some books that have been deemed racist or racially themed, according to NYU.edu, include Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind, Beloved, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Even books whose purpose is to expose racism as evil have been challenged because of racial content. 

The most common reason that novels have been banned in the past, though, is that the books have been deemed inappropriate for schools. Whether it be for profanity, sexual content, or violence, many classic and influential novels have found themselves on the banned books list for public education. Thefire.org provides examples, including Lord of the Flies, of Mice and Men, Brave New World, Farenheit 451, 1984, the Picture of Dorian Grey, the Great Gatsby, the Catcher in the Rye, and many others.

Literature is, and has been for centuries, one of society’s greatest teaching tools. Novels are a way for us to examine history and the harsh realities of an imperfect world. It is the responsibility of educators to help students mature and prepare for the world outside of the classroom. Jamie Leigh on punchnel.com argues that hiding children from the realities of a society filled with sex, violence, and profanity does not make any of those things go away, it simply leaves the child shocked and unprepared on how to handle those situations. Books give us the opportunity to learn lessons about the hardships of the world without having to experience them first hand, but in order to learn these lessons we occasionally need to be exposed to some unsettling content.

Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451, was published in 1953. Ironically, Fahrenheit 451 was placed on the banned book list despite the novel’s message about the importance of literature and the dangers involved with taking books away from the people. One crucial quote from the novel reads: “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?” Bradbury reminds us that while we are comfortable, we are likely not being challenged to think.

This same idea applies to the books that have been banned due to racial content. Some parents believe that exposure to racist language could have the effect of desensitizing children to racism, in turn making them more likely to form racist tendencies; however, it is near impossible to paint a picture of the horrors of slavery and segregation in the history of the United States without being harsh and involving race and or racist characters. Racism is a dark part of U.S. history, but woven into the story of our nation nonetheless. Mildred D Taylor, in The Land,  said: “Although there are those who wish to ban my books because I have used language that is painful, I have chosen to use the language that was spoken during the period, for I refuse to whitewash history. The language was painful and life was painful for many African Americans, including my family. I remember the pain.”

Books provide an opportunity for students to become uncomfortable with racism and make their own moral stands against it, especially with the guidance of trusted educators. The books that are being banned for their racial themes are often books that are using these tones to expose the evils of slavery and act as protagonists in the fight for equality.

There are also books that are challenged because they contain “anti-religious” themes. This label has often been a tool used to try to get rid of popular or classic novels all over the United States and the world. However, Jamie Leigh argues that just because one group or religion finds the book to be offensive, that does not mean that everyone else should be denied the opportunity to learn from it. The First Amendment states that the government is not allowed to express religious preference, and this goes for public education since it is a government funded program.

One example of this is seen with the banning of the Harry Potter series due to the belief that it promoted witchcraft (a sin in the Christian church). Compare this example to a scenario in which the events of 9/11 are not taught due to not wanting to offend Islamic religion. Oftentimes people will agree with one example and not the other and that is the problem with government using religious criteria to ban certain literature. The books that are being banned due to anti-religious themes are seldom books that are forcing a religion; they are simply books that provoke a different way of thinking or, quite frankly, just offer an escape to a world of fantasy as a means of entertainment.

It is no mistake that almost every classic novel is in some way controversial and has been either challenged or banned at some point in its existence. Books offer a voice for political, social, philosophical, and moral issues. One could argue, and should argue, that if a book has been challenged, it is doing something right. Isaac Asimov said, “Any book worth banning is a book worth reading.”

The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” Our founding fathers’ first priority when writing the Bill of Rights was to protect freedom of speech. They knew that the first step to oppression is to limit and censor the people’s ability to express ideas and challenge the government or challenge societal norms. The idea of banning books is fundamentally unconstitutional. It is a violation of freedom of speech and freedom of the press and should be treated as such.

Schools, along with being public institutions, are publicly funded entities and therefore should be required to provide access to every book. Censorship of literature is a denial of free speech and free expression. What may start as a ban on books in educational facilities could translate into a ban on books nationally. Once this happens, it creates a snowball effect for the government to use the same justifications to begin to ban other publications and limit the free expression of the press. This idea may seem far-fetched, but it is an example of a slippery slope on the road to oppression. Give a government an inch and it could potentially take a mile. According to historyplace.com, on May 10th of 1933, German students gathered to burn books in Berlin. The students saluted Adolf Hitler and proceeded to burn books that were considered “Un-German.” Hitler’s Germany had free-thinkers executed and had countless publications banned because free-thinking threatened his power.

Though some may argue that books need to be censored and sometimes banned due to harsh content, my contention is that censorship of literature does more harm than good. Books are our avenue to critical thinking, especially when taught by trusted professionals, professors and teachers, and give us the opportunity to learn from some of the greatest minds in the world, in some cases long after they are gone.

According to bookriot.com, Stephen Chbosky said, “Banning books gives us silence when we need speech. It closes our ears when we need to listen. It makes us blind when we need sight.”

Books are our best teaching tool and to take this tool away from society is detrimental to humanity as a whole.

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