In the United States, the First Amendment is considered an unassailable right, with particular respect to the freedom of speech. And in the age of online communication, it’s often taken for granted that anything can be written, published, and immediately be accessed by billions of people around the world.
So how is it that the Office of Intellectual Freedom reported that Americans submitted over 300 book challenges in 2016 alone?
The office, under the direction of the American Library Association, annually publishes a Top Ten list of the books receiving the most challenges and bans that year. A quick perusal reveals that most of the challenged works are smutty bestsellers, popular young adult novels or pro-LGBT books, such as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Looking for Alaska” and “And Tango Makes Three.”
But scroll through those lists a little slower, and you might be in for a surprise.
Within the past decade, Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill A Mockingbird” made the list not once but twice. So did Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” And so did “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
The ALA has kept an eye on these challenges in particular. The group compared their 1990-2009 records of book challenges with a literature ranking published by Columbia University’s Radcliffe Publishing Course.
There were 46 matches.
Of those 46 novels, the following eight were also included on two other critics’ lists – Time Magazine and the Modern Library. These eight also have some of the most recent challenges according ALA data.
The Thin Line Between Art and Obscenity
The ALA also published the reasons that challengers objected to the 46 novels. When analyzing the text of the challenges, it becomes immediately clear that most of the classic novels were challenged due to concerns over sex or obscenity.
“People [may] accept things that they wouldn’t have accepted 50 years ago, but I think the idea that obscene language and sexual content is objectionable is an old idea,” explained Louis Menand, a prominent English professor at Harvard University and a Pulitzer prize-winning author. “Obscenity is not protected by the first amendment.”
Thus, a book ban based on obscenity, as opposed to one based on the occult or witchcraft, would have better legal standing if contested in court.
In truth, books cannot truly be outright banned in the U.S. A person may purchase any book they like. But there’s no requirement that all books must be made available at a public library or a public school. What we colloquially refer to as a ‘challenge’ is formally called a reconsideration request within the library industry. Any person may contact their local public library, school, or district and request that a book be reconsidered. The result may be as simple as moving a book out of reach of children or as extreme as pulling a book from circulation entirely.
For an obscenity challenge to be contested in court, the work is required to pass the Miller test – which demands that, as a whole, the work must have “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value,” to not be considered obscene. They must also meet the vaguely defined “contemporary community standards.” This means a work of art may be considered obscenity in one state, but protected free speech in another state.
Today, it is extremely rare for a book ban to be contested in court, as most books are pulled from shelves without fanfare. The last widely covered book ban happened in Arizona, when the Tuscon School District banned Chicano studies programs in public schools as well as several books written by Mexican authors.
The Nature of Classic Literature
Today, most book challenges are from parents, which is not surprising to Robert Fleming, the executive director of the Iwasaki Library at Emerson College.
“They are trying to maintain social norms that are important to them,” Fleming says. “Parents wouldn’t want their children to be exposed to different [ideas], which may vary from viewpoints that they hold. School board and Public interest groups, take more aggressive stands against viewpoints around religion and social issues.”
Indeed in 2016, 40 percent of all book challenges came from parents, while school boards and pressure groups together issued 16 percent of the challenges nationally.
In looking at classic novels, one might expect that their critical acclaim would shield them from claims of obscenity. However, “To Kill A Mockingbird” was the 10th most challenged novel as recently as 2011, according the ALA.
“Literature is inherently disturbing. Literature is experimental… it challenges the way we think,” says Kevin Birmingham, an instructor at the Harvard College Writing Program. Last year, Birmingham won the Truman Capote Award for his non-fiction book The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, which explores how the infamously verbose magnum opus defied a de-facto nationwide ban and set a precedent for interpreting the First Amendment.
“I don’t think it is too much of a surprise that we have books that a lot of people value, [but] that other people find offensive or disturbing or insulting,” said Birmingham.
Reading Between the Lines
The data offered up by the ALA is, by the group’s own admission, an incomplete picture of censorship in America. Their data is a collection of self-reported reconsideration requests as well as media reports.
MIT research affiliate Chris Peterson is currently trying to fill in the gaps in that data.
Back in 2009, he used data from the ALA to build a map of where bans and challenges were happening.
“At the time, just adding Google locations was the most advanced thing anyone was doing [with this data,]” said Peterson.
Currently, Peterson is working on a similar project on a state-by-state basis. In 2012, he issued FOIA requests to every public school and library in Massachusetts, asking for their reconsideration requests. It took Peterson and his team, including two other non-tenured researchers at other universities, over a year to get all the information and sift through the data. He did the same with Alabama in 2014.
During these two projects, Peterson discovered anecdotal evidence that there was another reason that the data was incomplete – librarians and school administrators often refused to stock a book simply to avoid the controversy that it would inevitably draw.
Peterson says this discrepancy in the data is actually vital to the issue of book banning because it speaks to the heart of the issue. “What is the difference between censorship and discretion?” said Peterson. “It’s a broad philosophical question.”
As for what the data shows so far, Peterson says that no discernible trends emerged between the bans themselves and demographic data. In Alabama, he found that regions with more per capita college degrees did not challenge books more or for different reasons than regions with a lower educated population.
However, Peterson’s analysis includes challenges of all books, from tawdry romance novels to LGBT historical nonfiction. By narrowing focus to established classics, those novels, the data indicates that the South challenges classic works at a higher rate than any other region by a large margin – nearly three times the rate of the Western states. This, combined with the most popular reasons for banning books, seems to indicate that communities in the South are more sensitive to controversial themes.
Fighting Back Against the Ban
A major step in fighting back against book bans is ensuring the public that they do have a right to read anything they want, and no person’s reconsideration request supersedes that right. The ALA works with local libraries, including the Boston Public Library to spread awareness of censorship.
Every September, libraries across the nation host Banned Book Week – a week dedicated to celebrating the freedom to read.
“In the past we have frequently made book displays and created reading lists that highlight banned book titles,” said Melissa Andrews, collection manager at Boston Public Library.
Recently, some libraries have returned banned books to shelves. Just last year, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill A Mockingbird” were brought back to library shelves in a Virginia school district. The district said they trusted the judgement of their teachers in the assigning of books.
Anti-censorship advocates encourage communities to place more trust in the discretion of librarians and teachers when it comes to deciding if the quality or importance of a book trumps the controversial nature of the work.
A group of four Emerson College graduate students worked on this report: Cristina Hasenohrl, Vishakha Mathur, Dalinda Ifill-Pressat, and Ivy Liu.
Methods post is located here.