I always cringe when I see “Banned Books Week” advertised at the public library (this year running from Sept. 25 – Oct. 2). As humorist Max Beerbohm once said of similar exhibitions of comfortable outrage: “So few people have the courage of their opinions…. Indeed I do not see where ‘courage’ comes in. I do not understand why a man should hesitate to say… just whatever he thinks and feels. He has nothing to fear, nowadays. No one will suggest the erection of a stake for him to be burned at.”
Behind their nice slogans, the people at the American Library Association (ALA) who run “Banned Books Week” have a disingenious approach to “freedom of expression.” They conceal the fact that books may be “banned” for very different reasons. Is it fair to lump To Kill a Mockingbird (which protests racial injustice, and which nobody objects to today) together with sexually explicit titles aimed at young readers, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower or My Sister’s Keeper? These works are not subject to real suppression—e.g., being taken out of stores or burned by government agents. Almost every case of censorship deals with parents objecting to the circulation of “juvenile” materials that depict sexual activity, drug use or aberrant social behavior. Including relatively inoffensive titles like Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the ALA’s “crusade”, because of its outdated treatment of racial issues, is merely a sop to potential critics.
America’s laws were set up to guard “freedom of speech,” not “expression.” They sought unfettered political discussion and organizing. That freedom was not originally extended to incivility or mere lewdness. According to Miller v. California (1973) the Supreme Court maintains that obscenity is not protected by the Constitution, and can be limited by the local community, though in recent decades the limits of what is obscene have been practically obliterated. Nevertheless the theoretical freedom of citizens to curtail what is shown or published is still upheld, despite the bullying propaganda of a fashionable minority.
There are limits to tolerance. Child pornography is a case in point. And what about tolerating views which would, if unrestricted, ultimately lead to truly draconian restrictions on speech? Militant Islam, of course, has no scruples about offending liberal sensibilities. The irony is that people who are unwilling to allow prudent moral limits by parents and communities are supine in their accommodation of seditious fanatics and imams who declare fatwa against “offending” non-Muslims, like Seattle Cartoonist Molly Norris, for legitimately exercising their First Amendment rights. Norris has been forced into hiding by terrorists for her satirical treatment of the Prophet Muhammad. This is certainly a much more striking case of censorship than anything the ALA protests.