Freedom to Read – Individual Rights vs. Government Control

The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack. Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove or limit access to reading materials, to censor content in schools, to label “controversial” views, to distribute lists of “objectionable” books or authors, and to purge libraries. -From The Freedom to Read Statement, ALA Website

Banned Books Week is September 27th – October 4th.

  • Shi Huang, in 213 BC, started the ritual of burning books when he ordered books destroyed which he perceived as a threat to his rule as the first emperor of China.
  • On May 10, 1933 German students from renowned universities gathered in Berlin and other German cities to burn tens of thousands of books with “unGerman” ideas. Books by Freud, Einstein, Thomas Mann, Jack London, and H.G. Wells along with others written by gifted writers went up in smoke.
  • In 1980 a cultural revolution was launched and bands of Hezbollahis and Islamists attacked, destroyed and burnt libraries in Iran.

What do each of these examples have in common? They are an expression of a Government’s power to impose its own ideology on a people. Most Americans will read this and believe that what happened in 213 BC China, and 1930s Germany and 1980s Iran is far removed from their own experience in 2008 USA. But they would be wrong.

Americans freedom to read is challenged daily – often by local governments or fundamentalist religious groups. Books in the United States have been censored, banned, removed from libraries and taken out of schools. Often books come under attack because they conflict with somebody’s religious beliefs or they express a point of view which someone deems amoral. When we interfere with someone’s freedom to read we are imposing our ideology on that person.

I believe people have a right to pursue (or not) their own spiritual or religious path; they have a right to voice their thoughts on morality, politics, or world view. But I do not believe they have the right to tell someone else what to believe and then impose that by removing from society any reading material which does not support their ideology. That is why I track all the books I read which have been banned or censored. That is why at one time I moderated a Banned Books Group on Yahoo. That is why I contribute to Bonnie’s Banned Books Blog. And that is why when I read this article, I was alarmed enough to do something I do not normally do on this blog – introduce politics.

I’m not here to discuss my thoughts on Sarah Palin’s religious views because those should not have anything to do with her job as Vice President if the McCain/Palin ticket were to be elected in November. I do not want to know about Sarah Palin’s religious views. And I do not want her religious views and her sense of what is or is not moral imposed on me or any other American. I am appalled to think that Palin tried to do just that in her position of Mayor of Wasilla by pressuring the City librarian to remove or censor books from the library. Her letter to said librarian “requesting” her resignation was (according to Palin) just a test of loyalty. To me it smacks of bullying.

Here’s a good question – shouldn’t a Mayor be more concerned with crime, transportation and housing…rather than censoring books? Is Palin’s sense of righteousness so much a part of who she is that she could not separate her own personal beliefs from doing her job as Mayor? Do we really want our elected officials telling us what we can and cannot read?

Thomas Jefferson introduced the concept of Separation of Church and State as an inherent part of our First Amendment Rights. Although there is much discussion about this concept, it is clear that our Founding Fathers meant for religion to be removed from the act of governing our country. Does anyone think they would have approved of the government (local, state or federal) censoring or banning books as a way of imposing religious ideology on others? I don’t think so.

Sarah Palin’s brief tenure as a Mayor of a small Alaskan town (population approximately 9000), and her even shorter stint as Governor of Alaska (where she is currently under investigation on ethics charges) may be the only way for Americans to measure her ability to separate her strongly held fundamentalist beliefs from her sought after position of Vice President (and potentially President) of the United States. We should all consider this before entering the voting booth in November.

**Please be respectful in your comments. I welcome dialogue on this issue of BANNING BOOKS. Any disrespectful, flame-type comments will be immediately deleted.

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    • Tui on September 6, 2008 at 10:14

    You have nailed exactly the concern I had when I read that Palin had tried to do this vis banning the books. It flies squarely in the face of the first amendment of your constitution: freedom of speech (which includes the written word). I was, frankly, appalled that someone would act like this in a public office.

    I would think this would be of grave concern to all Americans who love their freedoms and their rights. Thank you for expressing it so well.

    • Wendy on September 6, 2008 at 10:19

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Tui…for me this is not about Palin’s personal beliefs, but about her abuse of her power to impose her personal beliefs on others. I’d be upset no matter WHO did this…and you are 100% correct, our First Amendment is also about the written word.

  1. Thank you Wendy for such a well thought out and well written post. This is such an important issue. Many Americans are easily blinded by the hoopla and rhetoric and are unwilling or unable to look deeply into the issues which affect our fundamental rights. There has already been so much damage done to our constitutional rights in the last 8 years; it’s scary to think it could get even worse.

    I thank you too for giving this issue space on your blog.

    • Wendy on September 6, 2008 at 10:49

    Thanks for your comments, Terri. I agree – our rights are being slowly degraded – a little at a time. I feel so strongly about our right to read that any discussion of censoring or banning gives me the chills. Most people don’t think we would have to worry about what has happened in foreign countries (such as Nazi Germany or Communist China), but I don’t think it is a big leap to think someday we could see something similar here in the US.

  2. Thanks, Wendy. You said what I was thinking, and you said it very well. Would you be willing to cross-post this on the Banned Books blog?

  3. Can I get an AMEN?

    Very well written and thought out post Wendy. Thanks for sharing. As much as I would love to have a women hold the Vice Presidency everything that I have been reading about Palin just chills me to the bone.

  4. Great post! I so agree with you!

  5. That poster is great! There is nothing that will make me more angry than some idiot trying to impose their beliefs and thoughts by banning books. Like when that high schooler tried to have Farenheit 451 banned because “a bible was burned”. That’s the whole point of the book! To show that book burning (and banning) is a crime.

    I hate politics and I try not to dwell on them because they make me so angry (I remember when Bush won is re-election and I said something about it in class one day. I nearly had to leave the room because of everyone’s support of him… those same people can’t stand him now). I honestly don’t care who gets to be president as long as this lady goes back to Alaska soon.

  6. Excellent post, Wendy. Thank you for voicing your opinion (and mine).

    • Lezlie on September 6, 2008 at 13:56

    We share similar views. I hope everyone on *both* sides thinks long and hard about what their decision means.


    • Dana on September 6, 2008 at 14:18

    FWIW–an intersting list. Numvers 30-33 address the issue.
    And no, I’m dont know which why i am voting yet, but I am very very skeptical of media hype from BOTH sides of the platform

    • Wendy on September 6, 2008 at 14:42

    Thank you to everyone who is weighing in on the topic.

    Dana: Glad to see you! I’ve been wondering where you have been these days! Thanks for the link which provides information on the other side of the issue. I don’t really care about which books she asked about removing (I actually had not seen that list before) – I don’t support removing ANY books from public libraries 🙂 It is hard to get both sides of an issue in an election year which is unfettered by hype because both sides will naturally want the issue presented in the way which supports their choice of candidate.

    • Jill on September 6, 2008 at 16:06

    I have always felt it’s a parents’ job to monitor what children read. And as adults, we should be able to read what we want, when we want it.

    This is a concerning viewpoint of our potential VP. I hope voters in our country take the time to make informed decisions about our candidates and vote this November.

    • Wendy on September 6, 2008 at 21:17

    I agree, Jill – ultimately it is up to parents to do the monitoring. I am always interested in parents who want to ban books in libraries – I would think some of the “difficult” or controversial literature out there would be an excellent springboard for discussion with one’s children. But, even if a parent doesn’t want their kid to read something, preventing OTHER people from reading it is not the solution, in my opinion! Thanks for commenting 🙂

    • Typ0 on September 7, 2008 at 03:22

    Banned Books Week is a something that is very near and dear to my heart. I had not read that article about Palin previously and am aghast. Great post, Wendy!

  7. Banning books is such a hot topic issue with me as well. I’m glad that you helped to inform others who IMO needed to hear this information. And personally I would rather read controversial books together so that we would have the chance to talk about the issue on hand.

    • verbatim on September 7, 2008 at 18:06

    The advocacy of banning books should be a red flag to anyone concerned with preserving diverse opinion in our government and society. Such diversity makes us a more creative, progressive society. It also happens to make for better government (see Abraham Lincoln). As far as I’m concerned once a politican suggests banning books that’s all I need to know — they gotta go! Thanks for raising the issue, Wendy.

    • Wendy on September 8, 2008 at 07:25

    Typ0: Thank you – it is near and dear to me too (as you can see!) and I get rabid thinking someone is threatening my right to read what I want to.

    Samantha: I couldn’t agree more – I always see an OPPORTUNITY in reading a book that makes me uncomfortable or questions my beliefs…that opens the door for dialogue and perhaps understanding even if you don’t ultimately agree with the author.

    Verbatim: *nods* When I see someone wanting to use their power to impede others freedoms, it makes me sit up and take notice.

    • ann on September 9, 2008 at 08:25

    Most of us are skeptical about anything written
    or seen on political issues. I am so glad to see that you expressed your views here. I know little about Sarah Palin and am happy to learn more. I confess that my views are not my own but a result of what I have seen and heard. Freedom is not free and I am keeping an open mind at this time.

    • Wendy on September 11, 2008 at 08:16

    Ann: I approach much in the media with some skepticism – but this story rang true to me based on what I’ve been learning about Palin. And you are right – freedom is NOT free, we must always keep a watchful eye out for those in our society who want to degrade our freedoms!

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