The American Library Association's misguided war against ‘banned books’

The American Library Association's misguided war against ‘banned books’
© Getty Images

The American Library Association foisted “Banned Books Week” on us again this week. The annual event runs through Sept. 30. It is designed to “celebrate the freedom to read” and emphasize “the value of free and open access to information.” Nobody can argue with those American-as-apple-pie objectives. 

The ALA, however, uses the occasion to veer off into shrill Chicken Little-like panic about the supposed evil forces in America that want to censor reading material and diminish a person’s right to read what he pleases. Each year the ALA publishes a list of “Top Ten Most Challenged Books,” suggesting that the books on the list are somehow “banned” and unavailable for citizens to access.

The problem with the ALA campaign is that it confuses banning and censorship of books with plain old judgment. In reality, the books on the ALA top ten list are widely available in thousands of public and school libraries around the country, not to mention being readily available for purchase online and through bookstores. That the controversial books are not included in every library collection is not a de facto indication that sinister forces have colluded to destroy freedom to read.

ADVERTISEMENT
The books on the challenged list are there typically because parents or other local patrons are concerned with school or public library holdings that contain sexually explicit content, profanity or references to drug use. That seems like a reasonable discussion to have. The ALA would have you believe such patrons have no business questioning the acquisition decisions of libraries. But librarians shouldn’t be so smug to assume they have the only say about what constitutes community standards. After all, books acquired by public or school libraries are paid for with taxpayer money.

 

Decisions on which books get purchased for inclusion in a library or school curriculum are based on multiple budgetary, cultural and community standards. Personal judgments by librarians and school administrators necessarily factor in, but challenging those judgments is also inherent in the First Amendment. The ALA should welcome public dialogue about what materials get placed in tax-funded holdings to assure that libraries are sensitive to the priorities and mission of a locale. Every bit of published material need not be in every library. Those materials deemed not suitable, either through the decisions of librarians, school boards or public library oversight boards can be acquired by citizens on their own dime.

The key in discussing “banned” or “censored” books is whether such materials are eliminated totally from the public domain by government order, and with penalties for offenders who would publish, distribute or read such materials. That is a reality in many nations today, but the United States is not included on that list.

The Supreme Court has addressed the matter of communities struggling with library content, but has not provided clarified guidance. A case in 1982 involved a Florida school board which sought to remove books from a high school library because the books were considered “un-American” and “plain filthy.” A fractured 5-4 decision by the court affirmed the school board’s discretion to choose books for schools. But Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority, said a school board could not arbitrarily remove books already in the library “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” 

The ALA heavily markets “Banned Books Week” with local displays, events, and encouraging people to post YouTube videos of themselves reading banned books. Of course, if the books were banned, ALA supporters wouldn’t be reading them for online videos. There is even a “Rebel Reader Twitter Tournament” in which people can win prizes for tweeting photos of themselves with a “banned book.” 

One of the ALA slogans for signage to promote the week is “Words have power. Read a banned book.” Indeed, words do have power. That’s why the ALA should rename “Banned Books Week” to remove the misguided notion that selection is banning. Instead, the ALA should focus on the very real need for clarity in understanding that a book absent from a library shelf is not “banned.” The ALA does great work in advocating for intellectual inquiry and freedom. There is no need to warp that mission with a stunt-filled week about false banning.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.