Banned Books Week 2020: What is Censorship?

Each year, the American Library Association (ALA) celebrates Banned Book Week, an event that promotes the freedom to read. This year, Banned Book Week runs from September 27-October 3. The ALA typically releases a list of the top books that have have banned or challenged in schools and libraries across the U.S. But they caution people to remember that the majority of challenges go unreported.

So what is censorship? The ALA defines censorship as “the suppression of idea and information that certain persons–individuals, groups, or government officials–find objectionable or dangerous.” Though the idea of censorship may conjure up the image of an oppressive government, or perhaps people with certain political views, censorship can happen anywhere by anybody. Often the people who are trying to prevent others from reading a book do not see themselves as villainous censors, but just people trying to protect others from harmful material.

In their “Freedom to Read Statement,” the ALA calls the freedom to read “essential to democracy.” The right to the freedom to read rests on the belief that individuals are able make up their own minds about works, and do not need to be protected from books. The ALA explains:

“Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be “protected” against what others think may be bad for them. We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression.”

ALA’s “Freedom to Read Statement”

It is perhaps no accident that the books that regularly make the ALA’s list of most banned or challenged are typically books for young people. Adults often feel the need to protect children and teens from certain ideas or materials because they do not trust their ability to “select the good and reject the bad.” Rather than allowing readers to make up their own minds, they decide for everyone that particular titles should be made inaccessible. As the ALA phrases it, “The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone.”

Individuals who attempt to prevent others from reading books may not see themselves as censors. They may believe that making books inaccessible is simply the “right thing to do” as it will prevent others from being harmed by “dangerous materials.” They may even believe censorship is wrong, but imagine that only people with different views from their own would ever censor books. However, it is important to remember that setting a precedent for making books inaccessible–even if someone believes they have a good reason–means that, in future, censorship could become more widespread. In future, people with opposing perspectives could point to the precedent set as a reason for materials they dislike to be removed.

Giving people access to books–all books–may seem like a scary thing. What if people end up reading books that contain dangerous ideas or perspectives that hurt them? What if someone reads a book and starts believing things many people think are wrong? This is the price we pay in a democracy for the right to access information, express ideas, and engage in discussion. We don’t have to agree with every book written, but allowing everyone freedom of express guarantees that we ourselves cannot be censored.

5 thoughts on “Banned Books Week 2020: What is Censorship?

    • Krysta says:

      Some people just think it’s their duty to “protect” others from “harmful” books. They don’t trust that you can discern bad ideas for yourself.

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      • mphtheatregirl says:

        I bet everyone has read a banned book at some time- some of the banned books are actually required school books.

        We easily could be reading a book not knowing it even is a banned book

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        • Krysta says:

          A lot of books have been challenged or banned for different reasons, some of them sillier than others. So, really, any book could have been the subject of an attempted ban at one point, yes.

          I think most people are okay with reading books that have been challenged. People usually challenge books for specific reasons. So a parent trying to get a book with LGBTQA+ themes out of her son’s school library might not really care if her son is reading a book someone else tried to ban for containing magic.

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