2004-04-08 / This Week's Attitude

This Week’s

By Neil S. Friedman
This Week’s Attitude By Neil S. Friedman There’s Nothing That Justifies Banning Books

By Neil S. Friedman
There’s Nothing That Justifies Banning Books

"If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." Supreme Court Justice William Brennan.

In the daunting post 9/11 climate that has led to undue curtailing of some freedom, it is, nevertheless, still shocking to read about books being bann-ed in this country.

In a blatant attempt to stifle offensive expression, the Federal Communications Commission has re-cently taken its strongest measures ever to crack down on "shock" radio, in the wake of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl breast-exposing stunt. However, conservative factions and the FCC have been going too far to ensure radio and television networks are less vulgar and offensive than in recent years. It’s surprising, therefore, they’ve never targeted their re-pressive restrictions at daytime soap operas, which for decades have been using risqué plots and sexy scenes—in the middle of the day—to attract audiences.

The American Library Association has spotlighted banned books annually since 1982. Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to read and is observed during the last week of September. Its purpose is to remind Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted, nor to be afraid to go to your library and read every book, as long as any document does not offend one’s personal sense of decency.

After hearing about a resurgence of books being removed from library shelves, I couldn’t wait until this year’s celebration to praise the ALA’s efforts, which contests book bannings and challenges. (A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.) The ALA has recorded more than 7,000 challenges since 1990.

The group’s website lists hundreds of books that some communities across America feel should be banned from school and public libraries because certain content is offensive to a few. The fact that most of the books in question are considered masterpieces in American literature has little bearing. Some books I was surprised to see on the list in-clude John Steinbeck’s "Of Mice and Men" (offensive language, violence), the entire Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, (anti-family, occult/Satanist themes) J.D. Salinger’s "The Catcher In The Rye," (sexual themes) "To Kill A Mockingbird," by Harper Lee (racism, violence) and Maya Angelou’s "I Know Why Caged Birds Sing" (language, sexual content).

Following a complaint from a black student and her grandmother, a high school in Washington State removed "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" from its English curricula last spring because the word "nigger" appears more than 200 times. School officials said they never intended to ban the book outright, so after months of debate and with input from the NAACP, guidelines were issued for when the book is discussed. Students have the right to be assigned an alternate if they choose not to read Mark Twain’s literary classic.

What may seem like a practical compromise to please a few essentially cheapens freedom of expression and undercuts the novel’s 19th century mood.

There’s no question that word is particularly repulsive to African-Americans, principally when uttered by a white person, except perhaps a handful of hip-hop artists who’ve been known to pepper recordings with the degrading term.

From the sublime to the ridiculous. For several years there’ve been numerous challenges to the Harry Potter series, which critics claim glorifies witchcraft. But, the most idiotic of all has got to be the one challenging the "The Guinness Book of World Records, 2001," which one Wisconsin teacher maintained was distracting juvenile boys with its photos of "the world’s most valuable bikini."

The desire to protect children from inappropriate material is a vital concern that is more critical today because of unlimited Internet access. Just as parents and guardians take responsibility for their children’s safety and needs, they must also be on guard for material unsuited for young minds.

Regardless, that does not mean society should acquiesce to sanctimonious groups, large and small, offended by words or ideas. Whether it’s profanity or a verbal attack on an individual or group, the only limits on expression for the printed or uttered word should only be controlled by personal censorship.

"Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech." Benjamin Franklin.

The way we go about our lives has changed significantly since the horror of 9/11. Yet it does not mean the fundamentals on which this nation was founded should be reexamined or restricted.

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