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Banned Book Week Celebrates Freedom

By Fernando Dutra
On September 26, 2006

For 25 years, the American Library Association (ALA) has observed the last week of September as "Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read," an event that stresses the importance of intellectual freedom. Begun in 1982, Banned Books Week (BBW) is a celebration of both the freedom of choice and the freedom of expression. According to the ALA's website,, BBW "stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unpopular or unorthodox viewpoints to all those that wish to read them." The web site itself is a platform that leads to numerous links explaining First Amendment rights and key Supreme Court cases regarding the issue of academic freedom.

The ALA is quick to point out the books featured on its web site's list are not currently banned, but have been repeatedly challenged over the years. The ALA submits that were it not for librarians' resolution throughout the United States, it is possible these books may have been banned throughout the country. However, by retaining the books on their shelves, librarians reinforced the importance of literature and intellectual liberty. Since then, BBW has been used "to teach the importance of our First Amendment rights and the power of literature, and to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society."

The majority of challenges originate from society's desire to "protect children from 'inappropriate' sexual content or 'offensive' language," according to the ALA. As a result, the ALA, expressed in "Free Access to Libraries for Minors" (an interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights), strongly advocate a parent's role in what a child reads and that the parent decides what is proper and improper for their child or children. Therefore, if censorship should be enforced, it would be within the confines of a household, rather than be endemic to the entire nation.

The books that comprise the most frequently challenged books are also the books that dominate elementary and high school reading lists. In partnership with ALA and to help promote awareness about BBW, Google has created a site that presents a critic's brief appraisal of some of the most challenged books, while the ALA website provides specifics such as why, when, or where a certain book was challenged. Some of the challenged books that have been challenged repeatedly include, "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee; "1984" by George Orwell; "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald; "The Catcher In the Rye" by J.D. Salinger; "Lord of The Flies" by William Golding; "Ulysses" by James Joyce; "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley; "Slaughterhouse Five" and "Cat's Cradle," both by Kurt Vonnegut; "Of Mice And Men" and "Grapes of Wrath," both by John Steinbeck; "A Separate Piece" by John Knowles; "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote; "All The King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren and "A Clockwork Orange" by Anthony Burgess, which are just a few of several other challenged books. After a brief walk searching for course books in the UConn Co-op, the importance of these novels becomes quite clear.

The range of critiques is vast, yet most deal with the same questionable elements in a particular story. "The Great Gatsby" received flack in 1987 due to "language and sexual references in the book." "To Kill a Mockingbird" was temporarily banned in Eden Valley, Minn. in 1977 for the use of the words "damn" and "whore lady." "Ulysses" was burned in the United States in 1918, in Ireland and Canada in 1922, and in England in 1923. The extent to which these burnings occurred isn't described on the site, but England banned the book in 1929. "The Lord of the Flies" was challenged at Owen High School in 1981 because it was seen as "demoralizing inasmuch as it implies that man is little more than an animal." "1984" was challenged in Jackson County, Fla. because it was believed that the novel was "pro-communist and contained explicit sexual matter." In 1960 a teacher in Tulsa, Okla. was fired for assigning "Catcher in the Rye." After appealing, the teacher was reinstated, but the book was removed from the itinerary in the school.

After reading a few of these challenges, it is clear why the ALA strongly promotes BBW and firmly believes in former Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr.'s words, "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society itself offensive or disagreeable."

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