Banned Books Week ─ Will we need it in 2015?

Last week was Banned Books Week. I enjoyed reading some witty blogs by parents who reacted by planning to read to their children all the banned books they could fit in during the week. Were they taking the “banned” in Banned Books Week seriously, and standing up for our freedom of speech?

I decided to look into this week-long event. Where did it come from? Who’s behind this week? What does it stand for?

Since 1982, Banned Books Week has been held every year during the last full week of September. Is this a real issue? Are there banned books in the U.S.?

Looking closely at the word, banned, is illuminating. The word means to “officially or legally prohibit something.”[1] The synonyms for banned are ominous. In the case of books, if you banned them you would: prohibit, forbid, veto, proscribe, disallow, outlaw, make illegal, embargo, bar, debar, block, stop, and suppress. 

Is this what Banned Books Week was set up to fight when it was founded 32 year ago by one of its key leaders, Judith Krug?  Krug served as the American Library Association’s Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom; and also joined the Freedom to Read Foundation as its Executive Director. As both a librarian and activist she was well positioned to stand up for freedom of speech and fight censorship.

There’s no doubt that concerns around censorship increased over the past few decades with the onset of the Internet ─ with worries about children’s access to age-inappropriate materials (e.g., think pornography) and government concerns about access to information that could be used to threaten our nation’s security (e.g., think Homeland Security).  In 1996, Krug coordinated an effort against the Communications Decency Act of 1996. This was the U.S. Congress’ first attempt to introduce a form of censorship of speech on the Internet. She fought against any moves that libraries would censor materials for patrons; and for libraries protecting the confidentiality of library use records. In the latter case, Krug opposed the U.S. Department of Justice using the authority of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 to conduct searches of confidential library databases.

Is this one of those times when both sides can be right on issues? We don’t want our children to have access to pornographic materials and we don’t want to jeopardize our nation’s security by providing cover to dissidents who might use library information to jeopardize our national security. But we do want to protect our freedom of speech and do want to maintain protections around confidential databases.

When there’s right on both sides, compromises are often in order. And sure enough, this is what happened on the childrens’ issue. In 2003, Krug led a challenge to the constitutionality of the Children’s Internet Protection Act. The result was movement toward middle ground. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “the law was constitutional but that filtering the software on computers in public libraries could be turned off if requested by an adult guardian.”[2] This put the decision about access to age-appropriate materials squarely in the hands of childrens’ guardians. Krug warned that the same filters used to censor Internet pornography from children would “risk blocking educational information about social matters, sexuality, and healthcare.”[3] Still it was an acceptable compromise to many.

Why is this week still being sponsored in 2014 by a long list of leading associations and literacy groups ─ the American Library Association, American Booksellers Association,  American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Association of American Publishers, National Association of College Stores, and endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress?

The answer lies in the original rationale for Banned Books Week.  It “not only encourages readers to examine challenged literary works, but also promotes intellectual freedom in libraries, schools, and bookstores. Its goal is to teach the importance of our First Amendment rights and the power of literature, and to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society.”

But shouldn’t the sponsors be honest about the name? More than a decade ago a columnist from the Boston Globe (Jeff Jacoby) pointed out that most books on the so-called “banned” list are books that were simply challenged, primarily by parents for violence, language, sexuality, or age-appropriateness. They were not actually removed.[4]  And a writer in the Wall Street Journal (Mitchell Muncy) later noted that the censorship being protested does not exist ─ that books are not banned in the U.S. [5]

Librarians responded then and still that Banned Books Week highlights “the hundreds of documented attempts to suppress access to information that take place each year across the U.S.,” and that “when the library is asked to restrict access for others, that does indeed reflect an attempt at censorship.”[6]

The bottom line seems to be: “Most books on the annual American Library Association list of banned and challenged books were “only” challenged, never banned. Even if some were removed from libraries, they are still available for purchase in book stores. Therefore, censorship hasn’t really happened because the government hasn’t banned the books.”[7]

Even if there are no banned books, it doesn’t look as if Banned Books Week is going away any time soon. And it doesn’t look as if the folks supporting Banned Books Week are going to change the name to “Challenged Books Week.”

So next year when the last full week of September rolls around and parents flock to libraries and bookstores to seek out so-called “banned books” to read to their children, that’s a good thing because they’ll be reading. But I’m going to guess that those same parents standing up for no censorship are not going to lift the protection on their Internet software to let their children visit pornographic websites during that week, nor advocate for their public libraries to do so.

If Banned Books Week causes us to think about these important issues, then I say, bring on Banned Books Week 2015.