Free Speech Part 2: Book Banning
Part 1 of this series dealt with what free speech looks like in America. In this post, we’ll look at book banning, and its impact on literature and education.
Book banning is nothing new. Before the invention of the printing press, books were rare and expensive. They took a long time to write, stamp, assemble and bind by hand — and unfortunately took very little time to destroy. If someone didn’t agree with what was written in the book, burning a few copies was a reasonably efficient way to ensure the vast majority of the population would never encounter the those offensive ideas contained within.
Today, in the age of mass printing and electronic copies, it’s almost impossible to erase a book from existence. Book burning still occurs, but it’s primarily a symbolic act of condemnation now. The modern method to limit a book from being read is to convince as many libraries as possible to ban it.
How are books banned?
According to the American Library Association (ALA), publicly funded libraries cannot legally discriminate what resources they provide based on a patron’s age, sex or race, but they can encourage parents of minors to keep an eye on what their children read. New titles added to a library’s collection are often pre-approved by the library board or a discussion group, or specifically requested by patrons.
For a book to be banned, it must first be formally challenged by a group or individual. Materials are commonly cited for having sexually explicit, racist, offensive or otherwise inappropriate content, for youth or all readers alike. Still, only a small number of challenges actually result in bans.
The ALA doesn’t encourage challenging books. In fact, the association operates an Office for Intellectual Freedom, which reports on and book challenges/bans and actively discourages censorship. Still, in 2017, 491 materials (mostly books, but also other media such as databases, magazines, films, games, etc.) were challenged or censored.
In America, the first amendment makes it so government agencies can almost never ban a book, unless it falls under very specific categories of hate speech and obscenity. There are legal tests for both hate speech and obscenity. The Supreme Court has repeatedly protected hate speech against an individual or group on the basis of race, sex or religion as long as it doesn’t incite imminent violence or harm against the subject.
For obscenity, there is the three-part “Miller Test” from Miller v. California:
- Would “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” find the work, taken as a whole, appealing to the prurient (excessively sexual) interest?
- Does the work depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law?
- Does the work, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value?
The Miller Test is applied in different courts differently, as it also depends on state law, but it is most often applied to pornography. If a work doesn’t fit all three parts of the test, then it likely will be protected from government censorship.
The majority of challenges don’t come from the government, anyways. According to ALA, three out of every four challenges come instead from patrons and parents. Knowing that, one would think the majority of these challenges would be to ban books from school libraries, which children have access to when their parents aren’t there to monitor what they read. Yet that’s not the case. Only 16 percent of those challenges reported in 2017 were issued from school libraries, with the majority of challenges coming from public libraries. Which brings us to our next question…
What are the ethical considerations of book banning?
Just because something is legal doesn’t always make it right. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled school officials couldn’t remove books from the school library with the sole reason being they disagreed with it. On the other hand, in 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier said school newspapers were not a form of public expression, and schools could therefore limit what student journalists say. How can both these things be ethical? School papers are available to students, teachers, staff and parents — basically anyone who asks for a copy. If you can’t limit what students read, shouldn’t that apply to the readers of the school paper?
Journalists often follow set standards for writing style and policies on confidential sources and other research tactics, but there’s no specific test or certification to be considered a journalist. And, like most journalists, students have an “editor” who can assign them topics and adjust their language. So, for all intents and purposes, high school students should be considered true journalists just as much as paid professionals.
That’s not the only, or the most pressing, ethical question when it comes to book banning. Should children grow up never learning about perspectives outside those of their parents? Should one group of patrons be able to dictate what everybody else in a public library can read? Click to Tweet
What does book banning do to the mind of a child?
First, it strains the child/guardian relationship. Reading with children from a young age has proven benefits, and can be a bonding activity with parent and child. (For more on this, see our post, “The Effects of Reading to Infants.”) If children learn that their parents are intentionally “hiding” certain material from them, it can lead to distrust.
Famous Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget specialized in studying children’s ideas of morality, fairness and justice. In his article, “The Moral Judgment of the Child,” published by the International Library of Psychology, Piaget uses the pretext of playing a game with children to study their beliefs. In the game, rules are changed by the child or the adult, and the child is asked to say whether or not he thinks it’s a fair rule. From this, Piaget concluded that moral judgment changes as children grow. When they’re young, their primary trust figure is their parent, so they will “tell on” others to the parent when they perceive an injustice. Justice, or “fairness,” is synonymous with equality in their minds; if a child understands that a parent is allowed to “hide” books from them, he or she will likely assume it’s okay to hide things from their parents in return.
Second, the theory of dissonance tells us that forbidding a person from having something only makes that person want the thing more. In a study for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology titled “Change in attractiveness of forbidden toys as a function of severity of threat,” researchers had boys rank five toys based on how much they wanted each, then gave the boys either threats of punishment if they played with a certain toy. None of the boys played with the forbidden toy while the researchers were out of the room, but the boys who received mild threats later ranked the same toy as more attractive than they first thought it to be.
Thirdly, banning books and differing viewpoints harms a child’s theory of mind (the concept that other people have different experiences, thoughts and feelings than you do). Developing a strong theory of mind is a crucial skill; without it, people generally lack empathy for other human beings, and have trouble making friends and interact poorly in complex social situations (“Not in Front of the Children: Indecency, Cencorship and the Innocence of Youth,” M. Heins, 2007). These traits related to a weak theory of mind can then in turn lead to violence, isolation, depression and sometimes crime later in life.
In the third and final part of this series, we will look at what free speech and education look like in countries around the world and throughout time, with a special emphasis on despotic regimes.
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