Many social movements begin with the simplest of acts. In the fall of 1975, a group of parents called Parents of New York United complained to a local school board that school policies on library books were too “permissive.” Among the offensive tomes were Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and Langston Hughes’ “Best Short Stories by Negro Writers,” which, the parents moaned, were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” In response, the school district removed the books in February of 1976. But a senior high school student, Steven Pico, and four classmates challenged the board’s decision; claiming the books were removed simply because “passages in the books offended [the group’s] social, political, and moral tastes and not because the books, taken as a whole, were lacking in educational value.” Other libraries and free speech organizations filed briefs on the students’ behalf, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 as Island Trees School District v. Pico.
While many parents surely were upset that a group of high school kids had the audacity to circumvent their authority, the more significant issue was the school board’s actions. And, on a grander scale, who has the right to determine what is acceptable and unacceptable?
As the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once declared, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
Shortly after the SCOTUS reversal of the aforementioned school board’s decision, “Banned Books Week” was founded. Since then it has grown into an international event with the goal of ensuring that true freedom begins with our ability and the right to read and see pretty much whatever we want. There’s a reason, after all, why the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is first.
Like any legitimate scribe, I strongly support the right to free speech and free expression. We in these democratic societies don’t often appreciate the importance of it. But speak with anyone who grew up in a totalitarian state – where people are told what to read and how to think – and you’ll realize the value of it.
Sadly this battle will never be won. We will ALWAYS have to combat those who feel that, since they’re offended by something, no else should have access to it either. In the current chaos of extreme political correctness and assaults on the media by a deranged American president, none of us should have to tolerate the narrow-minded choices of others.
Keep writing and keep fighting!
Banned Books Week runs this year from September 23 – 29.