Blindfolding the Populace
Posted by hyperpat on July 10, 2007
Closely related to my prior post about busy-bodies sticking their noses into what is clearly other people’s business are the long running attempts to ban certain books, as can be seen from this list, which includes some of the greatest literature written, such as Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. These attempts have ranged from trying to have it removed from every possible shelf and library, to burning, to issuing death threats (and sometimes more than just threats but actual acts) not only to author, but to those who were involved in publishing and distributing the book (see the writeup of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses).
Most commonly, though, these attempts have occurred at the school level. It is understandable that some parents may find objectionable things in some books, such as discussions of certain subjects, offensive language, or depictions of certain actions that they don’t feel that their little Johnny is ready for. Schools need to be sensitive to parent’s perceptions; most are, and have procedures in place to handle such problems, such as the ability to have the child in question read something else when requested. But instead of requesting that their child not read a particular work for whatever reason that the parent’s find it objectionable, they place a demand to the school board that the work be expunged from all classes and removed from all library shelves. All too often, the school board caves in to these demands, until some other parent requests the book be re-instated, at which point the frequent result is that the work is placed in advancement placement only classes and shelved in the restricted area of the library. This is not an optimum solution. Schools exist in order to educate the child in all the things he will need to know about as an adult. Making access to literary works difficult or impossible is like putting blinders on the child, and then wondering why he’s not ready to function as an adult when that time comes.
But perhaps worse than this form of censorship, which at least has an understandable motive behind it, are those attempts to ban a book from everywhere. There is only one valid reason, at least in my opinion, why something should be suppressed, and its author’s right of free speech abrogated (along with the reader’s right to read what he wishes) and that is if it would cause physical harm to someone (the famous ‘you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater’). The current Supreme Court definition of obscenity, is, in my mind, incorrect and against what is stated in the First Amendment:
- 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; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Even if 99 out of 100 people in a community think something is obscene trash (thus creating a ‘community standard’) and this same group believes the work in question has no discernible literary or artistic merit, banning this work still deprives the one person in that community who doesn’t think so of his right of free speech in the form of being able to read what he wants. The problem here is that pornographic or obscene works do not physically harm anyone. Absent an overriding reason such as this, I can find no justification for this ‘abridgement of freedom of speech’.
And there is another aspect to this. An author, knowing his work may to subject to such censorship, may decide to alter or leave out certain things in his writings. This effectively constitutes ‘prior restraint’, and down this road lies “Ignorance is Strength” – from another of those books that people have tried to ban.