Book banning is a complex topic, one which I find fascinating. Many of our most beloved American novels have been banned at some time or another--from Huckleberry Finn to To Kill a Mockingbird--only to produce puzzled shrugs and smug laughs among the general populace. If these are so popular, who's requesting their ban? And what are the reasons for the ban?
First off, let's clear the water and define what defines and entails a ban in America. A ban is initiated when a challenge is officially submitted to the American Library Association's Library for Intellectual Freedom. According to the ALA website, many challenges never progress this step because apparently a large number of people simply want to make their dissatisfaction known, having no real interest in going through the formal (and often lengthy) process of actually banning the book. When the ALA corresponds with the challenging body, the challenging body is tasked with formally demonstrating why it should be banned. Most challenged books don't get banned for a number of reasons, spanning the challenger not following appropriate clerical protocol, the challenger not articulating a valid argument, and the challenge hearing committee not finding that experts or critics generally agree with the interpretation or the overall judgement of the challenger. Book challenge hearings are very serious affairs because the ALA claims to be against banning (censorship) in all cases but the most extreme. (That doesn't mean they don't take the challenges seriously; to do otherwise would be to dismiss the very public they claim to want to educate, and be educated.)
If you're like me and wondering why this even matters, considering the First Amendment protects free speech, then you--like me--need clarification on the word "obscene," and what it entails. In the case Roth vs. US in 1957, obscenity was defined as being "utterly without redeeming social importance," which ruled out First Amendment protection because thematically the U.S. Constitution is for the good of the people. If intellectual content demonstrates a lack of value of any kind of the American people, then by default it self-excludes from protection under the First Amendment. Thus, obscenity is the keystone behind book banning, because if a challenger can prove to the challenge hearing committee that content is obscene, it can be legally banned and the Court can say nothing about it.
This definition worked as a starter, but proved to be too vague, and in 1973 the Court redefined obscenity as "lacking serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value," due to the Miller Vs. California case. This created a much stronger case--and future treatment--against censorship because although obscenity wasn't protected by the First Amendment, the new standard to judging obscenity became the Three-Prong Standard, or the Miller Test. The three prongs are as follows:
1) Whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards (not national standards, as some prior tests required), would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.
2) Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, a sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law.
3) Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
Now we have a clearer view of what obscenity is, and how it's strictly a social concept, one that if and when poorly defined within the limits of the law, allows good books to be banned. Any book can be challenged, but thanks to Miller vs. California, the heavy burden of proof lies on the shoulders of the challenger. To quote one of my favorite Christopher Hitchens lines: "Anything that can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." In modern America, much evidence is now needed to formally ban a book, despite challengers perennially citing sexuality, offensive language, unsuitability for an age group, violence, homosexuality, and anti-religious views as ban-worthy themes.
Let's step back from the clerical aspects. If America is about freedom, who is requesting the bans? Well, we have to look at where they are banned, to understand that. Are books challenged because others don't want them on your personal shelf? Some, but that is a ridiculously small percentage. According to the ALA website, "Of the over 5,000 challenges reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom, 1,639 are in school libraries, 1,811 were in classrooms, 1,127 were in public libraries, with 114 for use in colleges and 30 in academic libraries...The vast majority of challenges were initiated by parents (2,535) with patrons and administrators to follow (516 and 489 respectively)." Pretty much no one cares what you read in the privacy of your own home, thus, that criteria is absent from the formula of banning.
The majority of books challenged are those that will end up on public domain shelving, accessed by children in schools, and adults in libraries. Schools and libraries; that's really the heart of the ban. Bookstores are notoriously liberal because they're businesses designed to sell books; if there is a market, there is shelf space. Schools and libraries on the other hand are designed to develop/inform culture, and educate the youth. The public subsidization which allows the cost to be nearly zero in the school or library is intended to incentivize people to read, but it also has a negative effect. Since it's publicly subsidized and thus publicly affected, the public weighs in an opinion on what should be available. Hence, when the non-Christian Harry Potter falls upon a Christian child's eyes, Christian parents disapprove. Nor does a Capitalist like how Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree describes how Capitalism unforgivingly destroys nature, but how nature is inherently incorruptible, and how trees don't feel and talk like humans. Books are only banned in the public sphere because that's where we house most of our intellectual material. Thus, social interests, customs and values (echo: contemporary community standards) are integrated into these structures. In other words, as long as books are part of the public sphere, people will always complain due to feeling like their personal values are being muted by the accessibility and proliferation of material that denounces, disproves, or dismisses them.
So as long as books remain a part of the public sphere, someone's always going to feel offended, is that right? Basically. In America, you're encouraged to have strong personal values and convictions, so long as their exercise doesn't impede upon the liberty of another. So, what happens if my value is ignorance? I'm certainly going to be offended by the findings of science and the theories of philosophy. And vice versa.
So does that make this whole issue a mute point; a cat endlessly chasing its tail? According to Neal McCluskey, in his October 2012 article in the Orange County Register: Book Banning is about Freedom, But Not Like You Think, he says the solution is: "In education, it is school choice. Let people freely choose schools, and give educators the freedom to establish and run schools--and choose readings--as they see fit. Then neither parent nor educator is forced to add or subtract from what is read. For libraries, the answer is to move away from the public control and toward civil society: people freely choosing to support libraries that lend at no cost to patrons and are open to the public." McCluskey points out that government intervention, whether it be big or small, has an immediate effect on the intellectual material made available to the people.
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