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Christopher M. Finan: Banned Books Aren't Going Away

Christopher M. Finan is the president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the chair of the National Coalition Against Censorship. He is the author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America and Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior.

Censorship is very American.

After all, the First Amendment was something of an afterthought.  The Founding Fathers did not plan to protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the Constitution.  The Bill of Rights was a concession to critics who argued that the Constitution did not provide adequate protection from government tyranny.

How right they were!  Only a few years later, one group of the Founding Fathers passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in an effort to silence another group of Founding Fathers.

We have come a long way in our appreciation of the importance of free speech.  In the years following World War I, the United States saw the emergence of an organized campaign to expand the protections for free speech.  By the end of the 20th century, the United States provided greater safeguards for expression than any other nation.

Yet, at the start of the 26th annual Banned Books Week, it is clear that the fight for free speech must continue.

There will always be times when concerns about national security threaten free speech.  During World War I, the government prosecuted more than 2,000 people for criticizing the war.  One thousand were convicted, and many were sentenced to up to 10 years in jail.  Fear of Communism during the Cold War led to nearly a decade of repression: people were sent to jail for membership in the Communist Party; a blacklist silenced performers whose politics were suspect; and average Americans were investigated for the books they read, the music they listened to and the paintings that hung on the walls of their homes.

The threats to free speech that have emerged in the wake of the 9/11 attacks are less overt, but they are not less serious.  They lie in the growing surveillance of Americans at a time when government is demanding greater secrecy for itself.

Censorship is also a threat when the nation is at peace.

Booksellers, librarians and publishers celebrated the first Banned Books Week in 1982 against the background of a political and cultural counterrevolution.  Many people saw the election of Ronald Reagan as a chance to strike back against the liberalization that had occurred in the 1960s and 1970s.  On the local level, they began challenging hundreds of books that were used in schools and libraries.

The number of book challenges has fallen over the last decade.  At the peak, in the mid-1990s, the American Library Association recorded more than 700 each year.  However, many school districts have now established procedures for reviewing challenges, and there are fewer bans by panicked administrators.  There were 546 challenges in 2006, but almost all the challenged books were returned to the shelves.

Yet the desire for censorship remains strong.  Books offend people for many different reasons.  The most challenged title in 2006 was And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book about two male penguins parenting an egg.  Several “pro-homosexual” books were near the top of the censors’ hit list last year.  But complaints about sexual explicitness, offensive language and excessive violence continue to be common.

It is not surprising that people still call for censorship.  We are a diverse and vigorous society that embodies many conflicts.  It is inevitable that people will be offended by something they see, read or hear, and that they will respond by advocating the suppression of what they dislike.  Demands for censorship come from both ends of the political spectrum and all points in between.

Nor should we expect this situation to change.  It is a measure of the health of our democracy that people feel free to protest.

But because the fight over books will continue, so must the battle against censorship.

Free speech will remain free only as long as we are willing to fight for it.