Banned Books Week: Fighting for freedom of information
Forty years ago, in September 1982, the first "Banned Books Week" took place in the United States.
According to bannedbooksweek.org, this annual awareness campaign was first launched "in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries."
This refers to the case of Island Trees School District versus Pico, where a slim majority of the US Supreme Court held that the First Amendment limits the power of junior high and high school officials from removing books from school libraries because of their content. In this case, the school had removed nine books from its library in 1976 — including Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" — citing that the books were collectively "anti-American, anti-Christian, antisemitic, and just plain filthy."
The court found that "the local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books."
It was Judith Krug, a prominent American First Amendment and library activist who first conceptualized this week together with the American Library Association's (ALA) Intellectual Freedom Committee.
Often held during the latter half of September — this year between September 18 and 24 — this event focuses on the value of free and open access to information as guaranteed under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
During this week the American book community of librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers and readers get involved in activities "to support the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular," as stated on the Banned Books Week website.
Meanwhile Amnesty International, as a member of the Banned Books Week Coalition, uses this week to focus on people worldwide who have been imprisoned, threatened, or murdered because of their writing, art, or other published work.
Unfit for reading
Over the years, notable titles have time and again been the subject of court cases after being deemed unfit for young readers either by school boards, parents or citizen's advocacy groups in the US.
Among others, American poet laureate Maya Angelou's "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" has been described as "deviant" for its references to lesbianism, premarital sex and profanity. Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" has been challenged for being racially offensive for the use of slurs. In 2001, J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" (1951) was removed by one school board member who believed it was a "filthy, filthy book." All three are considered American classics.
International books have also been targeted: Some American school libraries have called to remove the globally successful "Harry Potter" books by British author J.K. Rowling from their shelves, as they deal with ghosts, cults and witchcraft.
Meanwhile, Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" is perhaps the most notable example of a book that has been banned in many countries and infuriated many Muslims for its blasphemous portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad.
The novelist, who was forced into hiding for nearly 10 years after his book was published in 1988, following the fatwa or decree of then-Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who called for Rushdie's assassination against a $3 million bounty on the author's head.
On August 12, 2022, 24-year-old suspect Hadi Matar stabbed Rushdie multiple times as the latter was about to give a public lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in the state of New York. Matar was arrested at the scene and has since pleaded not guilty to the charges of assault and attempted murder. Matar reportedly said he has only read two pages of the author's controversial novel. Speaking to the New York Post from jail, Matar said Rushdie was "someone who attacked Islam."
Ban or challenge?
It must be noted that the word "ban" itself remains moot. Critics argue that books are not "banned" per se in the US — unlike in other parts of the world where governments prohibit their sales or availability for diverse reasons. The books in American school syllabi or school and public libraries are more often "challenged" by parents, advocacy groups or private citizens for their perceived sexual, violent, offensive or age-inappropriate content.
Supporters argue that semantics aside, observing "Banned Books Week" raises people's awareness of their freedom to information, and in the long run prevents challenges from turning into outright bans.