As a writer and a community college professor, I've seen firsthand how an open exchange of ideas can lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. I've also seen firsthand what happens when people try to restrict access to information. This Day in June has been challenged by patrons of the Hood County Library in Granbury, Texas; a group of parents in the St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colorado; and a patron of the West Chicago Public Library in West Chicago, Illinois. Making books unavailable to readers robs us of the opportunity to engage in thoughtful inquiry and dialogue, and it prevents children from learning about the world around them. I put together some information about censorship, the First Amendment, and intellectual freedom in an effort to protect our collective freedom to read.
Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. This allows us to explore all sides of an issue and participate in a free exchange of ideas.
Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that some consider objectionable or dangerous. Censors limit access to information by preventing people from reading books, buying magazines, viewing art exhibits, or watching films and other media. Often, censorship involves pressuring public institutions, such as schools, libraries, and museums, to suppress and remove materials. When this happens, that robs people of the opportunity to access those materials and form their own opinions about it.
Censorship has many different faces. It can include:
The authors of the U.S. Constitution believed that freedom of information and expression is the most fundamental of human rights. The freedom to believe, access, and express different ideas is the foundation of a democratic society. Without the First Amendment, we wouldn’t be able to have an open exchange of information and ideas, and challenging inaccuracies and injustices would be impossible.
Most forms of speech, even hate speech, are protected by the First Amendment. While typically hate speech has to be acted on to turn into a crime, there is a special exception called “the "fighting words" clause, which stipulates that if someone uses words to “incite an immediate breach of peace”, then that person’s speech is no longer protected. There are other exceptions; such as slander (using spoken words to damage someone’s reputation) and libel (using written words to damage someone’s reputation). In some cases, hate speech involves violations of contract law, such as copyright infringement. Groups like the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center keep track of groups that routinely engage in hate speech.
If you or someone else’s work is being challenged, I encourage you to take action right away. But don’t act on emotion. Personally, I wouldn’t engage with the censor – it probably won’t be productive, and you’re likely to get even more agitated. Instead, my advice boils down to three basic things: know what your rights are, follow processes that are set up to review challenges, and get support from others.
Formal challenges are typically reviewed by a governing board, such as a library board of trustees, a city or county governance group, or a school board. Find allies who are willing to support your work during the challenge. Find out when public meetings about the challenge are being held, and get as many people as you can to attend and speak out against the challenge. If people can’t attend, they can send letters or e-mails in support of the challenged work.
If your work is being challenged or censored, there are lots of organizations that can help you. The National Coalition Against Censorship (http://ncac.org) is an alliance of more than 50 nonprofit organizations working to preserve all forms of intellectual freedom. You can report acts of censorship on their website. The NCAC has created a variety of toolkits and reports, including a Book Censorship Toolkit, an LGBTQ Right to Read Resource Guide, and The First Amendment in Schools: A Resource Guide. If you’re an author, reader, or librarian, another great resource is the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom (http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom). On their website, you can learn more about intellectual freedom, report censorship and other violations of intellectual freedom, and learn about (and participate in) Banned Books Week.
The American Civil Liberties Union (https://www.aclu.org/) works to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, including the First Amendment.