Censorship: Stories to Watch, Things to Think About

Here are some book removal stories that you should know about going on right now:

On April 2nd, the Meridian (ID) School Board voted to remove the Sherman Alexie book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” from the curriculum. The book, no stranger to past challenges, has been controversial for its content since it was released in 2007. In response to the removal, there were arrangements made to give out copies to students as part of World Book Night, an act so heinous that someone called the police. Whether the fight will be taken to the public library system is something to be closely watched.

Meanwhile, in Orland Park, Illinois, the protracted conflict over internet filtering policies continues onward via the proxy battle of FOIA requests. This started back in October when the issue of filtering on adult computers was the subject of a complaint to the library board brought by Megan Fox and Kevin DuJan. Since then, Fox and DuJan have handed out leaflets in front of the library claiming that it was a “dangerous place for children” and launched a social media campaign to pressure the library into changing its policies. Kudos to the board for standing firm in their beliefs and hopefully a speedy end to the legal wrangling.

Finally, earlier this month in my home state of New Jersey, the West Essex School Board is considering the fate of the book, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. As of today, I understand there was another school board meeting in which the book was discussed but I don’t know what the outcome was. I am hopeful about this situation as it seems to be the most reasonable: there are alternative titles in place as well as support for the book in the community.


The other weekend, I was watching the Ken Burn’s documentary “Prohibition” when something eerily familiar about the talking points of the temperance movement emerged. First, they spoke of the need to ban alcohol as a way to protect the children. It’s the same rhetoric that gets wrapped around book removals and internet filtering; if these books are still available or there are no filters, then children will be the ones to bear the consequences of exposure to these ideas and/or images. Simple enough, right?

My problem with this argument is that I find it to be disingenuous. If the protection of children is paramount, then what they read or what internet sites are available to adults doesn’t rate a spot in the top ten concerns. Housing, food, shelter, education, health care, and support systems should not left wanting if the protection of children are the priority. It reminds me of a wonderful quote from Sister Joan Chittister speaking of the topic of abortion with Bill Moyers:

But I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking. If all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed, and why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of what pro-life is.

While I will concede that what children read, hear, or see is important, you lose me when you advocate that it is more important than some of the essential basics I’ve listed. Because between making sure a child has enough food to eat, clothing to wear, and an education system that provides a future versus a book that has naughty words in it or people in a video engaged in a sexual act, I’m choosing the former.

Second, the temperance movement found power in turning alcohol into a wedge issue: are you with morality and the family, or are you with the Devil and the drink? In following various book removal and internet filtering stories over the years, I’ve seen the same kind of narrative emerge: if you don’t support our morally-based conclusions, then you have chosen to side with pedophiles, perverts, and criminals. It works well in the realm of public opinion (Prohibition did get passed as an amendment), but poorly in terms of practical public policy.

Book removals end up being case studies in the Streisand Effect by raising the profile of the vulgar/filthy/unseemly literature, thus actually encouraging more people to read it as well as discuss its content and meaning. For lack of a better analogy, internet filtering is like building a fence to stop people accessing certain content. The solution to people bypassing the fence is simply “more fence”, thus setting off a never-ending arms race between filtering software and the means to defeat them. Nevermind how it can catch people who are not trying to access restricted content, but that’s just seen as collateral damage of First Amendment rights. No big deal, especially since we’re already playing loosely with constitutional interpretations.

As of late, I’ve come to thinking that the word “censor” has been evolving within the language. In times past, it meant a government official who approved popular culture content; these days, I believe it has changed to anyone who overreaches on restricting content to a group or segment of the population. It’s the difference between a parent not allowing their child to see a movie versus a parent not allowing any children to see a movie. The fact that we refer to places like China or Saudi Arabia as having “government censorship” acts as a point in my favor, for otherwise the phrase is redundant as it relates to the government. Would it be fair to say that what the people are doing in the above stories is censorship? I’d say so since I believe the word (like many other words before it) has changed over time to mean any form of material restriction. This is just another case of how the language changes over time.


I’ll be honest with you since I can’t seem to find a way to close this blog post. I keep writing the same sentence about lessons I took away from the Revolutionary Voices ordeal, but I’m having a hard time articulating them. In a way, it’s like an old wound that only aches when the weather turns cold. I live with it, I’ve gotten past it, and I talk about it candidly, but on those cold days it stirs up the emotions associated with injury that caused it. I wonder if any other librarians who have experienced similar situations feel the same way. But I’ll try my best to share those lessons right now.

I try to keep in mind that the majority (not all, but most) of people who make these complaints are acting out of their own variation of good intent. I don’t agree with them, but I try to understand the basis of their objections. I think the difference between removal and reconsideration is sometimes lost, where the latter might move it up a grade level or age bracket as opposed to being no longer available. There is a thin line between being righteous and self-righteous, one that gets skewed or forgotten within a pluralistic society. I’d like to believe that the people I read about are good people, but sometimes that’s very hard. It’s also very hard to forgive and it takes much longer than you think.

Someday, I’ll write more of the details from my book removal experience. I think it’s important since it lights a candle in the dark for librarians who been caught in the same snare. I’ve always tried to be honest and candid as a way of helping out other people through their own issues and I think something like that would help. But it’s not a blog post for today.

Some day. But not this one.

3 thoughts on “Censorship: Stories to Watch, Things to Think About

  1. Andy, I completely understand your comments about an old wound. In 1995, I lived through a censorship challenge for the New Joy of Gay Sex (among other titles). It is almost impossible to describe how the situation affected me, how it made me stronger AND more wary. It was long enough ago that I could only easily find this one citation, but the title is priceless: SEX BOOKS STAY IN CLIFTON LIBRARY, BOARD RULES – http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P1-22497448.html.
    But, I also want to add something about Junot Diaz. As anyone who read the book knows, part of it is set in Paterson, NJ and someone decided it would be a great idea to invite him to speak to the students at International High School. And, his oral presentation was much like his writing, full of profanities (I wonder if his classes at MIT are similar). Someone who was present told me that the teachers were all wincing as he extorted the students to “get the fuck out of Paterson. See the world”. To the credit of the school, no one objected and, from what I heard, the students were truly impressed by his presentation.

    • This censorship issue has to cover all forms of free speech and thought, not just those that meet an agenda. Good or bad, the events with Duck Dynasty, Paula Dean, and now the LA Clippers owner are examples of extreme censorship. And for the record, I rank moral values much higher than being poor.

      • The reactions to the Robertson family (of Duck Dynasty fame), Paula Deen and Donald Sterling (as well as to Cliven Bundy and Brendan Eich of Mozilla) weren’t censorship. These people weren’t denied the right to free speech. They were able to express exactly what they thought and they still can, as loudly and as often as they want to.

        The reactions came from market forces and the private sphere. Deen’s cooking show and the Clippers started losing their corporate sponsors almost immediately because no corporation can afford to offend or lose its customers. The NBA didn’t want the embarassment that Sterling brings, so they voted him out, as they had a right to do. Nobody is stopping him from speaking his mind, however.

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