Over two centuries ago, the founding fathers recognized that the basic human desire to express thoughts, opinions and ideas is invaluable and should be protected. The first amendment of the constitution guarantees us both free speech and freedom of the press. However, there are—and should be—limitations to every right. Just because you “can” shout profanities in your everyday speech, it doesn’t mean you should do it or that there won’t be consequences.
Similarly, although the government cannot regulate which books are printed and distributed, school boards and educational institutions are allowed to ban books that are seen as offensive or inappropriate to their students.
However, for one week each year, the American Library Association along with a host of other literary organizations sponsors Banned Books Week, a celebration of literature that pushes boundaries and opens new worlds to us as readers.
First, it is important to note what it means when a book is “banned.” When a book is deemed banned, it cannot be on library shelves or assigned as required reading in a school district. However, if not banned, a book can also be restricted. Restrictions give books a sort of “rating,” or set of conditions—like students can only check this book out if they’re in ninth grade or above.
The Godfather, Raging Bull and Schindler’s List are three of the American Film Institute’s top 10 movies of all time. They are revealing, beautiful, challenging, difficult, dramatic, entertaining and life-changing films, but all are rated R and are incredibly inappropriate for young children. This is similar to the rationale behind restricting or banning books.
In the 2012-2013 school year, Texas school districts challenged 58 books across the state. However, only 10 were actually banned—the lowest number of banned books for Texas in over a decade. Austin ISD challenged no books, but its neighbor, Pflugerville ISD, led the state in challenges—13 books, according to the ACLU. But despite the number of challenges, the district kept all 13 books on their shelves.
Two of the books that were challenged in Texas this year had one single reason listed—”homosexuality.” In Bastrop ISD, just a few miles from Austin, the book “I like Him, He Likes Her” by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor was challenged for the “mention of lesbian marriage.” Similarly in Lamar ISD, just outside of Houston, the book “The Bad Kitty Christmas” by Nick Bruel was challenged for “lesbian partners holding a child.”
In both instances, the books did not comment on, explain, or delve into the ideas of homosexuality. They merely mentioned it offhand and that was enough for a challenge. Fortunately, both challenges did not result in a ban. However, the fact that that is all it takes to draw opposition is still concerning.
Texas is not alone in this, either. Two of the top 10 most challenged books of the 2012-2013 school year nationally listed “homosexuality” as a reason, according to the American Library Association.
Some of the most important books of our time have been banned from on the basis of overt sexuality, violence, profanity and religious offensiveness. Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage,” Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and even Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” have been banned from library shelves at some point. These books very well may have faded into oblivion were it not for the efforts of literature lovers and progressive thinkers that continued to fight for these American classics.
While the desire to expose students only to the best age-appropriate literature is valid, banning books may not be the answer. The fact of the matter is that students will be exposed to violence, sex, profanity, homosexuality and situations that challenge their religious beliefs one way or another.
Therefore, we must ask ourselves, do we want our students to learn about the struggles of growing up from Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye” or a topless Miley Cyrus in Rolling Stone? Do we want our students to learn about the history of race relations in the United States from “To Kill a Mockingbird” or from a comically removed Tyler Perry movie? Should students learn about the reality of war from “The Red Badge of Courage” or from a politically slanted media source removed from what’s really going on? Do we want our view of homosexuality to be taken from the gritty, real life of Ginsberg’s “Howl” or from the polished, botox-injected, meticulously made-up hosts of Bravo shows?