Should We Ban Books?: A reflection on 2022’s banned books week

By: Daniel Finegan

Sept. 18-24 was banned books week. This event, in the words of the American Library Association, “celebrates the freedom to read and spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.” This, however, raised questions for me that I believe should be answered, or at least discussed more openly: Should books be banned? Are there any ideas so dangerous and evil that they should not be allowed in the public sphere?

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law…. abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Free speech is a central idea of our country, but not one without controversy. William F. Buckley Jr. once said, “I don’t want the society to be open to certain ideas. I am an epistemological optimist. That is the unfortunate word they use to describe people who believe that by reason you can make certain exclusions, and those exclusions don’t have to be reconsidered. I don’t feel any obligation to protect the liberties of a Nazi or of a communist.” Buckley here puts his finger on the central problem of free speech; if you allow everyone to speak their ideas freely, there will be ideas expressed that are wrong and/or flagrantly evil. Ideas can be immensely dangerous, but is banning them a proper solution? 

In the Warner Library during banned books week, I noticed a table with laminated photographs of “banned” books. I took a random handful of these books and did my own research. Every single one of the books I grabbed was available for purchase on Amazon. In most cases, these books were bought for a school or library, and then parents asked for them to be removed because they contain content that parents feel is inappropriate for children. This does not constitute a violation of free speech; these books can still be purchased and read by the general public. However, parents have the right, under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, to challenge books they believe are obscene or detrimental to their children. All education, whether it be for children, teenagers, or adults, consists of filtering content. There are some books that are more likely to end up on a curriculum (ie, The Odyssey) and some books that are less likely to be on a curriculum (ie, Divergent). Parents have a vested interest in giving their children the best education possible, and some books may be unsuitable for kids or are simply just bad. 

In an article in The Atlantic titled “Why It’s a Bad Idea to Tell Students Words Are Violence,” Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff point out that there has been a growing concern, especially on college campuses, that words can be violent. They carefully make a distinction: “We’re not talking about verbal threats of violence, which are used to coerce and intimidate, and which are illegal and not protected by the First Amendment. We’re talking about speech that is deemed by members of an identity group to be critical of the group, or speech that is otherwise upsetting to members of the group.” There are types of speech that are not protected under United States law. However, as the great political writer Thomas Sowell wrote, “All human beings are so fallible and flawed that to exempt any category of people from criticism is not a blessing but a curse.” Criticism is not violence. Disagreement does not constitute hatred. There are ideas that are hateful; but does that mean that they should be banned? Where do we draw the line between “hate speech” and valid differences of opinion? There are some forms of speech that are illegal, such as harassment and threats. Expressing an opinion is not one of those.

Unless a book expressly advocates physical violence or harassment against a group or individual, it should not be banned from the public sphere. If we are to allow free speech, we have to allow it for those we disagree with. Some ideas are dead wrong; however, they are and should be permitted in our society. This does not mean we adopt an attitude of bland tolerance towards ideas we disagree with; on the contrary, we should engage in respectful and vigorous dialogue with each other to try to reach a better understanding of what is true and what is not. Many books contain ideas I believe to be abhorrent. Doubtless, there are ideas I hold that others find abhorrent. Nevertheless, perhaps by engaging with each other, we can find the truth.

Sources: ALA, ISI, The Atlantic, The Thomas Sowell Reader

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