Banned Books Week is back again. The American Library Association says the annual event "brings together the entire book community" including "librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types." The whole "book community," according to the ALA, locks arms "in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular."
Free expression is as good an excuse as any to throw a party. Barbara Jones, director of ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, enthused in Huffington Post that this year's festivities would include a "dance performance at Muhlenberg College (Pa.), Twitter parties, a Google Hangout with Sherman Alexie [and] a 'BBQ&A' in Austin, Texas. In Indianapolis, a local author will be living in the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library behind a storefront featuring a wall of banned and challenged books." Sleepover!
Banned Books Week is mostly an American thing. "The campaign was founded in 1982 by prominent First Amendment and library activist Judith Krug," Wikipedia helpfully explains. It is sponsored by the ALA, the Library of Congress and representatives of American publishers, booksellers, authors and journalists. Amnesty - wait for it - International lends its name to give the event some foreign flavor.
Which is funny, because there is not much censorship in America. After guaranteeing freedom of religion, the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." Over time, U.S. courts have taken that limitation on government power seriously, allowing the suppression of expression only under narrow circumstances.
To use the Supreme Court's own cliche, you're not allowed to yell "fire!" in a crowded American movie theater or incite a riot or perhaps reveal troop movements during wartime. This pro-speech bias applies even to libel laws. It's difficult to successfully sue someone for libeling you in America, doubly so if you are deemed a "public figure." Groups such as acupuncturists or Germans are not allowed to bring suit in the U.S., as they are in other countries, because you published something broadly critical of them.
So where are all these book bans coming from? From stretching the term a bit. The ALA explains, all of the books "featured during Banned Books Week have...been targeted with removal or restrictions in libraries and schools." Not even removed from schools or libraries, mind you: the fact that a volume was even considered for removal or any kind of reading restriction is enough to land it on the list of "banned or challenged" books.
For instance, the second item of the ALA's report Books Challenged or Banned 2012-2013 concerns the M.T. Anderson novel "Feed," which was "challenged at the William Monroe High School in Greene County, Va. (2012) because," in the opinion of one parent, "the book is 'trash' and 'covered with the F-word.'" In response, get this: "A consent form was sent to the students' homes, and a notice that the class would be reading a mature book was posted on the teacher's webpage as well." It's practically a new Inquisition.
Or take the latest cause celebre. A school board in Randolph County, N.C., voted 5-2 to removed Ralph Ellison's National Book Award-winning novel "Invisible Man" from its school libraries, finding in it no "literary value."
The "Invisible Man" incident only illustrates how thoroughly censorship has been routed in America. Writing on the website of the conservative magazine National Review, which has formally editorialized in favor of censorship in the past, Kevin Williamson charged that Randolph County school board was "committing a gross act of academic vandalism. Parents and taxpayers should demand that this decision is reversed. We have raised enough generations of cultural illiterates - and plain illiterates - as it is, enough that they're serving on school boards."
While deplorable, it's doubtful that the school board's decision will result in, on net, even one fewer student reading the novel. It should have the exact opposite effect, if history and common sense are good guides.
The board's "academic vandalism" did not and could not remove the novel from Barnes & Noble, indie or used bookstores, from public libraries, from the reach of Kindles, Nooks and other e-readers. The controversy simply served as free advertisement for the already famous novel, as a powerful incentive for students to stick it to the man by reading contraband and as more grist for the American Library Association to hawk its "I Read Banned Books" buttons and bumper stickers.
Jeremy Lott is editor of Real Clear Books, Policy and Religion, and author of four books, including "The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency".