The Tully Center for Free Speech

Free Speech Zone

Banned Book Week and Freedom of Thought

By Roy Gutterman, September 28, 2011

Central New York is not in the “Ring of Fire” where earthquakes are common. But when an earthquake hit Virginia in August, buildings here shook pretty substantially, too.  The analysts said: it’s rare, but it sometimes happens.

The same can be said for book challenge controversies in our schools and public libraries. Book censorship locally is rare, but not entirely dormant.

In preparation for this week’s American Library Association’s “Banned Book Week,” area librarians say the library community is on pretty firm ground when it comes to book challenges, the formal proceeding which could effectively remove a book from circulation in either a public library or school libraries.

The only significant book challenge in Central New York in anyone’s recent memory took place in the Baldwinsville School District in 2008. There, after a parent’s formal complaint, Katherine Tarbox’s book A Girl’s Life Online, which details her teenage experiences with an online sexual predator, was prevented from being assigned in 11th and 12th grade English classes.

The book’s explicit language and adult themes sparked the complaint and subsequent review by assistant superintendent Dawn Wilczynski, who read the book, discussed it with the superintendent and decided to take it off the required reading list.

“We decided if it was something a student chose it would be okay,” she said, adding the book had a “good message” but might not be appropriate for all students.

Though the book was pulled from the required reading list, it was permitted as an optional reading choice. In the end, some students indeed used the book, she said.

Censorship cases before the United States Supreme Court have ranged from  government attempts to quell speech that might affect national security or incite a riot based on unpopular messages to attempts to ban content or books or films on obscenity grounds.

Perhaps the most critical decision on book censorship came in 1982 in a plurality opinion in Island Trees School District v. Pico.  Here, a group of parents sought removal of nine books from the school system’s libraries, including works by such literary heavyweights as Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Langston Hughes and Richard Wright.  Alice Childress’s A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich was also banned. I read  this book around the time of this controversy, and would have relished the reading even more had I known it was the subject of a censorship battle in a community not too far from where I grew up.

Although the Supreme Court failed to garner a solid majority in the Pico case, the opinion has been interpreted as anti-censorship – that the First Amendment prevents a school district from pulling books from the shelves.  Offensiveness is not a valid legal standard.  Classroom or compulsory reading for courses would be a different issue, as would acquisition of books.

“Of course all First Amendment rights accorded to students must be construed ‘in light of the special characteristics of the school environment,’ Justice William Brennan wrote, quoting the seminal school speech case, Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969). “But the special characteristics of the school library make that environment especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students.”

Brennan further wrote that a library is a place dedicated to “quiet, to knowledge, and to beauty.”

The American Library Association 2011 report on challenged, restricted, removed or banned books, lists more than 40 books challenged across the United States on grounds of sexual, profane, racist or “anti-Christian” content.  The list reads like a first-rate literature education: authors include Anne Frank, Toni Morrison and J.D. Salinger, just to name a few.  Central New York’s own Laurie Halse Anderson faced a challenge in Missouri because her young adult book Speak covered topics of drinking, cursing and premarital sex. ALA estimates that 85 percent of book challenges go unreported by the media.

Judi Dzikowski, BOCES coordinator for school library systems for 23 school districts in the Central New York region, said some books are frequently questioned. The Twilight, vampire series, and books in the Captain Underpants and Walter the Farting Dog series have been questioned but not formally challenged.

Complaints are handled locally through formal proceedings in a school district, usually at the school board level, she said. Informal censorship can also happen at the school level. “If a principal says it’s off the shelf, it’s off the shelf,” Dzikowski said.

In the 19,000-student Syracuse City School District, librarian Patty Vilello said in her 34 years in the school district, there have only been two or three books disputed. There have been no formal challenges to books under her watch.

“This is a pretty progressive area, it’s not Texas,” she said. “We’re in an urban town, a college town. I do think the fact that they are required to read a whole piece of literature before action is taken helps. Once they read the whole thing, they have a different reaction.”

The last books to be questioned involved a dolphin and a child with two gay dads, she said.   “It was so long ago, and none [of the disputes] resulted in the books being destroyed,” she said. “The books were shifted in the library. We do a pretty good job of shifting around.”

The biggest issue the library faces, especially in schools where there are students in grades Kindergarten through eight, is when a younger child reads above the normal reading level.  The district’s policy regarding a book challenge requires a complaining party to read the entire book, “not just an offending page or two,” before filing a formal challenge.  “That really makes a difference,” she said.

The message is similar in the public library system.

Elizabeth Dailey, executive director of the Onondaga County Public Library, said over the years the library system has had so few complaints about content that it does not even have any records.

In the past five or so years, there was one request to remove a book on child abuse from the children’s section, which the library refused. “We didn’t do it and the person eventually understood that,” she said.

The most vocal complaints regarding content came back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when branch libraries showed the controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ.

“For public libraries, we have very little incident,” she said.

With 19 libraries in the Onondaga County system, Dailey believes the librarians and selectors have avoided a lot of book banning controversy by understanding the interests and needs of the community.  She also acknowledged that there might be a degree of “self- censorship” in the selection process.

“Our communities are naturally conservative and our selection reflects what the community needs,” she said. “We have a culture of not pushing the envelope.”

“Because the librarians are really in touch with the community and are seeing what the needs are and are meeting these needs,” she said.

One reason the library system may not be pushing the envelope, she said, is that resources are spread thinly as the library copes with emerging technology and media.  Libraries no longer only supply books, but also DVDs,CDs, video and mp3s.

The selectors and librarians are also briefed on intellectual freedom, Dailey said.

“We talk about intellectual freedom, even a page re-shelving a book is instructed, ‘It’s not your job to judge the appropriateness of a book for the community,’” Daily said.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote in an essay that there is nothing more “Un-American” than censorship.  While the act of government officials sitting with their hands on the censorship button or blocking publication of content seems like a foreign concept, and in many ways is, we need an event like Banned Book Week to remind us of the value of literature, books, the First Amendment and freedom of thought. And what better place to celebrate this than in a library.

Roy S. Gutterman is an associate professor and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.