Author Robert A. Heinlein said about censorship: “The whole principle is wrong; it’s like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can’t eat steak.” Since the printed word began, those rankled by its messages have worked to bowdlerize and ban it.
In the U.S., censorious impulses rose to a frenzy in the eighties, and it was then that Banned Books Week began. This year, Banned Books Week spans September 21-27, and, to honor the occasion, we’ve compiled a list of four famous cases of library censorship.
1. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
Mark Twain’s classic has incited objections to its perceived immoral and sacrilegious content since its 1884 publication. One month after its publication, the Concord, MA library banned it, and other libraries followed suit. In the 1950s, the NAACP condemned the book as racist, and one parent even sued a school district in 1998 for making the book required reading. In the suit, Monteiro v. The Tempe Union High School District, the parent of a high school student accused the school district of exacerbating racial tensions at school with the book’s racist overtones. The court refused to ban the book.
Kurt Vonnegut’s tour de force was one of several books banned in Island Trees, NY schools in 1976 for its purportedly depraved and anti-Christian message. With the ACLU’s help, five high school students sued the school district, and the battle went to the Supreme Court in Island Trees School District v. Pico in 1982.
In the Court’s ruling for the students, Justice Brennan said, “We hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of public opinion.'”
3. The “Harry Potter” Series
J.K. Rowling’s beloved series has encountered virulent opposition from its nascence. In 2001, a group of parents in Maine planned a book-burning of “Harry Potter” and other books they believed promoted Satanism, violence, and witchcraft. Similarly disgruntled parents and school districts also objected to the books, and Counts v. Cedarville School District was the result.
There, the court ruled against a school board that required parental permission to read the book because it promoted disobedience and the occult. The court ordered the books returned to unrestricted circulation in the interest of students’ First Amendment rights.
4. “The Scarlet Letter”
Moralistic objections have plagued Nathaniel Hawthorne’s timeless novel since its publication in 1850. Critics objected to the author’s seemingly sympathetic depiction of an adulteress and caustic criticism of the clergy. Almost 150 years later, parents from one school district called the book pornographic in the 1970s, and a spate of cases in the nineties sought to ban the book for values that conflicted with the community. Nevertheless, the novel remains a staple of sophomore English classes.
Banned Books Week is a celebration of our freedom to read. And, looking at this list of literary gems that came so close to being driven into obscurity by moralistic censors, we do indeed have reason to celebrate.
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