“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”
– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
In the spirit of John Stuart Mill’s defense of free speech, Stanford held its first Banned Books Week Read-Out in White Plaza on October 2. Though books aren’t generally considered cause for celebration, the read-out specifically honored books that have been frequent victims of bans, challenges, and complaints in schools and libraries across the nation.
Banned Books Week is an annual event held during the last week in September and sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) and several other professional associations. The event highlights the benefits of unrestricted access to information while drawing attention to the fact that, from time to time, there are attempts to regulate or remove literature from community and school libraries – usually as a result of complaints that specific content is not appropriate for children.
“Banned Books Week exists to remind everyone to remain vigilant about their Constitutional freedoms and civil liberties, because if we don’t fight to protect them, if we aren’t aware of the threats, it’s very easy to let those freedoms slip away from us,” said Deborah Stone, Acting Director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “We have these great resources for information in our community, these libraries, and they exist to serve everyone, they exist to enable everyone to access a wide range of ideas and opinions across the political spectrum. That shouldn’t be throttled by one person’s disapproval of a particular idea or because of a belief that a child or a young adult can’t handle particular content.”
Stanford’s own observance of Banned Books Week culminated with the reading of several commonly challenged books by prominent University faculty and staff. Rev. Scotty McLennan, Dean for Religious Life, read from Of Mice and Men; Prof. Shelley Fishkin, Director of American Studies, read from Huckleberry Finn; and Rev. Joanne Sanders, Associate Dean for Religious Life, read from And Tango Makes Three. Other books featured in the read-out were Bertrand Russell on God and Religion and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
The event in White Plaza was sponsored by Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics @ Stanford (AHA!) in collaboration with several other campus organizations. Lewis Marshall, a second-year graduate student in chemical engineering and Public Relations Coordinator for AHA!, specified several reasons for the organizing the read-out. “It’s generally important that we not allow one group of people to censor another group of people. We, as a group, are currently a minority, and it is in our best interest to make sure no minority has their speech censored,” said Marshall.
Joe Foley, a third-year graduate student in genetics and President of AHA!, added, “The First Amendment protects freedom of speech from government intervention, but I think in some parts of our culture there is still a pervasive attitude that some books just shouldn’t be read. That’s really what we’re trying to fight – this attitude that information or literature can be dangerous.”
The week-long commemoration is not without controversy. On September 25, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Mitchell Muncy titled “Finding Censorship Where There Is None.” In the article, Muncy points to the fact that only sixteen percent of the ALA’s documented banned and challenged books have actually been permanently removed from a library or classroom. Muncy also proposes that if a particular book is not available at one library or bookstore, it is almost certainly available at another.
Concerning the Journal’s editorial, Stone said that the author tried to conflate complaints about a book with an actual challenge. “Certainly, people can voice their opinion about a particular book or resource in the library, but a challenge is a formal request to remove a book from the library, which is something far different than raising concerns,” she said.
Stone also stated that the ALA strongly supported a parent’s right to direct their child’s reading. “We want parents to be at the library, we want parents to be engaged with their children’s reading. But, that right to direct their children’s reading ends with their child; it shouldn’t also direct the reading of another’s family or another child.”
Among the top ten most challenged books of this year are And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson; The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, a trilogy by Philip Pullman; and The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.