Let #FReadom Ring: On Book Banning and Censorship Across the World

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind.”[1] Captain Beatty’s words from Fahrenheit 451 were penned by Ray Bradbury in 1953, but they still hold relevant. These words refer to the purpose of censorship—to prevent knowledge (the shot) from being disseminated to the public, particularly knowledge that could promote critical thought against the hierarchical systems that keep certain people in positions of power. Books, as distinctive sources of knowledge, are banned in the society depicted in Fahrenheit 451. If and when they are found, they are burned, along with the homes of the books’ owners. Controversy is “eradicated” as the words of every special interest group are erased from public discourse. The elimination of their voices “ensures equality…” but does not recognize reality. We are facing a similar totalitarian regime today.

The Book Banning Movement

What began as a debate in 2021 over the meaning and teaching of “critical race theory” has now turned to a broader examination of all school curricula and library books available to students regarding controversial matters, such as racism, sexism, a conjunction of both, and other oppressions.  For example, in Texas, Representative Matt Krause has asked the state’s school districts to report whether they have any of the 850 “psychologically distressing” books he compiled on a list, including the number of copies, where they are located, and how much the school district paid for them.[2] Furthering this, Texas Governor Abbott ordered the state’s Education Agency to “investigate any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography” and report any findings of it for “prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.”[3] Oklahoma’s Senator Rob Standridge promoted book-banning as well, proposing legislation that would enable parents to challenge books in public school libraries and collect up to $10,000 for each day the book remains shelved after a month’s duration.[4] Following Texas and Oklahoma’s lead, book banning protests and organizing led to school libraries removing books from shelves in Kansas, Virginia, Missouri, Utah, and Florida.[5]

The overarching purpose of this movement is to use local and state governance to control teachers and librarians and push an ideologically slanted vision of what children should learn about culture, society, and history. Importantly, “selective teaching” and “revisionist history” is furthered on both sides of the polarized political spectrum. Conservatives believe that mature themes of poverty, addiction, abuse, race, gender, and sexuality have no place in the sanctums of learning. In contrast, liberals ban books for racial stereotyping, culturally appropriating, and promoting oppression . Some other countries, like Canada, follow this bipartisan banning as well. One Ontario school board not only banned but burned books for their “outdated content” and “negative stereotypes” regarding several Indigenous groups—this was supposedly a gesture of reconciliation with the native community.[6] At the same time, Canada’s right-wing book banning movement protested against SOGI 123,[7] a school program promoting education about sexual orientation and gender identity via LGBTQIA+ inclusive classroom resources.[8]

Book censorship in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania is influenced in accordance with the conservative ideology. In China, censorship is proactive rather than reactive, meaning that before books on “sensitive” topics such as religion, sexual objects, and Chinese history are published, they are vetted.[9] In the Philippines, universities were tasked with removing “subversive materials” promoting the pervasive ideologies of “terrorist groups” that “radicalize the mind.”[10] The Middle East typically censors all art that is considered “un-Islamic,” including books on intimacy, secularism, and magic.[11] Historically, in Africa, literary censorship of anti-Apartheid books was widespread to further notions of segregation.[12] In Europe, Hungary, Italy, and Russia have censored books pertaining to LGBTQIA+ inclusion and education deeming them “homosexual propaganda.”[13] In Australia and New Zealand, religious and parents’ rights groups have banned books supporting the reversal of gender roles and encouraging “sexual obscenity and bad language.”[14]

Ultimately, librarians, educators, and anti-book banning organizations understand parents’ and organizations’ concerns about exposing mature themes to premature adults. However, they believe the concerns are outweighed by the harm book banning causes to students who are exposed to those mature themes every day and are rarely represented in literature.[15] Reading books where their own experience is mirrored allows students to contemplate solutions to the problems they themselves face while feeling validated that they are not alone. For example, students can read the habitually banned book The Outsiders and discover how to work through parental loss and grief as Ponyboy, Darry, and Sodapop do in the novel.[16] Additionally, for those that cannot relate to the characters in a banned book, they can explore morality and aspects of the human condition to build empathy and compassion for people unlike themselves.[17] If anything, banned books—due to their controversial nature—provoke conversations on divisive topics that students may already be exposed to on the internet. At least with a book, parents can be gratified that there is some educational value gleaned that cannot be acquired from a medium like TikTok.[18] Further, what is considered offensive can change over time, but the threat to freedom of speech and choice that comes with book banning may be everlasting. At what point does the censorship lead to the world described in Fahrenheit 451?[19]

An Overview of Censorship

Fundamentally, censorship is associated with larger societies that have a degree of centralized control and the technical means to reach a mass audience effectively.[20] Those in control determine what can and cannot, along with what should and should not, be expressed to the broader audience in accordance with their political, religious, moral, and cultural beliefs. Based on those beliefs, censors withhold information, edit existing information, or prevent information from being created. Censorship is commonly believed to have originated with the withholding of information in China in 212 B.C.[21] At that time, Chinese Emperor Shih Huang Ti burned all the books in his kingdom, retaining only a single copy of each for the Royal Library, which was then destroyed before his death.[22] His belief was that if all the historical records were destroyed, history could begin with him.[23]

Censorship assumes that certain ideas and forms of expression are threatening to individual, organizational, and societal well-being and therefore must be prohibited. However, it should be noted that what classifies as threatening is defined by those in power. Some censorship is symbolic, offering a way to cross political divides by avoiding insults to shared values (e.g., a prohibition on flag burning).[24] Other censorship may be a form of moral education, such as preventing the hate speech directed at certain affinity groups.[25] Often, censorship may “masquerade under high principles of protecting public welfare, [but] may simply involve a desire to protect the interests of the politically, economically, and religiously powerful by restricting alternative views to, criticism of, or de-legitimation of those in power.”[26] Ultimately, the purported reasons for censorship must be weighed against citizens’ freedom to receive information, lest governments infringe on their constituents’ fundamental rights.

The Freedom to Receive Information

In the United States, the First Amendment of the Constitution gives citizens the right to free speech.[27] In 1943, the country expanded this right to include the corollary one of receiving information.[28] In 1946, the United Nations cemented freedom of information as a human right, and a fundamental one at that, prioritizing its discussion at the very first General Assembly meeting and declaring it the “touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.”[29] Two years later, the UN noted the freedom in its Declaration of Human Rights, establishing that everyone has “the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”[30]

In 1995, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Abid Hussain, expanded on the rationale for holding this right in such high regard:

Freedom will be bereft of all effectiveness if the people have no access to information. Access to information is basic to the democratic way of life. The tendency to withhold information from the people at large is therefore to be strongly checked.[31]

What Hussain means is that the right to receive information improves governance and lives, since the transparency and accountability of those in power allow citizens to understand the issues impacting their society. Citizens must acquire this knowledge to determine the laws, institutions, and programs that need to be implemented to create a better future for themselves and other citizens like them.[32] Only then can they ensure that governments perform in accordance with the “will of the people.” This is the basis of democracy. Importantly, democracy is also about governments’ responsibility to citizens and the idea that those elected as civil servants really should “serve” the public. Implicitly, this means that public authorities should not keep information they hold from citizens.

This logic applies to students having access to books as well. If they are allowed to read books on identity politics and identify the complex dilemmas underlying such, students will inevitably become more knowledgeable about their privileges in comparison to those of their classmates. Consequently, students will develop an increased understanding of the socio-economic strata that govern society and disenfranchise some of their counterparts and their respective families. As a result, students may become motivated to “do something” about the systemic discrimination that occurs on account of someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation,      the intersection of these identities, and many more. Their theorizing and organizing could very well lead to an ear from the government, effective representation, and policy change.[33] Knowing this potential, parents, schools, and localities should not shelter students from accessing books that could ultimately make them better citizens. They should encourage students to become as secular as possible to contribute to society and lead fulfilled lives. This is exactly what social activist Granger advises career book burner Montag to do at the close of Fahrenheit 451:

Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask for no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal.[34]

[1] Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 112-113 (1953).

[2] Bill Chappell, A Texas Lawmaker is Targeting 850 Books That He Says Could Make Students Feel Uneasy, NPR (Oct. 28, 2021), https://www.npr.org/2021/10/28/1050013664/texas-lawmaker-matt-krause-launches-inquiry-into-850-books.

[3] Zack Beauchamp, Why Book Banning is Back, Vox (Feb. 10, 2022), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/22914767/book-banning-crt-school-boards-republicans.

[4] Richard Dahl, Book Banning Efforts Are on the Rise. What Does the Law Say?, FindLaw (Jan. 6, 2022), https://www.findlaw.com/legalblogs/law-and-life/book-banning-efforts-are-on-the-rise-what-does-the-law-say/.

[5] Dennis Aftergut, America Ends 2021 With Censorship Surge. Will 2022’s New Year Be Better?, NBC News (Dec. 31, 2021), https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/america-ends-2021-censorship-surge-will-2022-s-new-year-ncna1286798

[6] Tyler Dawson, Book Burning at Ontario Francophone Schools as “Gesture of Reconciliation” Denounced, National Post (Sep. 7, 2021), https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/book-burning-at-ontario-francophone-schools-as-gesture-of-reconciliation-denounced.

[7] The acronym SOGI stands for “sexual orientation and gender identity.” SOGI 123 refers to an approach created by Canada’s ARC Foundation that includes three essentials for creating sexual orientation and gender identity inclusive education: policies and procedures, inclusive environments, and teaching resources. See, SOGI 123, https://www.sogieducation.org/approach.

[8] Andrew MacLeod, BC’s Increasingly Bizarre Anti-SOGI Bandwagon, The Tyee (May 28, 2019), https://thetyee.ca/News/2019/05/28/Anti-SOGI-Speaker-Attracts-Dubious-Company/.

[9] Arvyn Cerézo, What Book Censorship Looks Like Outside the United States, Book Riot (Feb. 8, 2022), https://bookriot.com/book-censorship-around-the-world/.

[10] Id.

[11] Team Lounge, Saudi Readers Finally Get to Read Banned Books, MintLounge (Oct. 19, 2021), https://lifestyle.livemint.com/relationships/it-s-complicated/saudi-readers-finally-get-to-read-banned-books-111634621592186.html.

[12] Cerézo, supra note 9.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. See also, Karen Hardy, How Many of These Banned Books Have You Read?, The Canberra Times (Sep. 27, 2018), https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6002520/how-many-of-these-banned-books-have-you-read/.

[15] Lourdes Enriquez, Banning Books Does More Harm Than Good, New University (Nov. 26, 2021), https://www.newuniversity.org/2021/11/26/banning-books-does-more-harm-than-good/.

[16] S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders (1967).

[17] Regan McMahon, Why Your Kid Should Read Banned Books, Washington Post (Sep. 27, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/09/27/why-your-kid-should-read-banned-books/.

[18] TikTok is an app that serves as a social network for users to create short-form amateur music videos. Users can make their own videos as well as watch and engage with other users,’ virtually with no restrictions in terms of parental or content controls. See, Heather Schwedel, A Guide to TikTok for Anyone Who Isn’t a Teen, Slate (Sep. 4, 2018), https://slate.com/technology/2018/09/tiktok-app-musically-guide.html.

[19] In Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451 world, possessing, reading, and distributing books is illegal. Books are considered evil for promoting readers to think and question their circumstances. In this world, the government is fully anti-intellectual, attempting to eliminate all sources of complexity, contradiction, and confusion to ensure uncomplicated happiness for its citizens. Citizens are not allowed to educate themselves on history, culture, science, or anything.  In fact, firemen are ordered to burn down houses that contain books on these subjects and more rather than protect those houses and their owners from against fire.

[20] G.T. Marx, Censorship and Secrecy: Legal Perspectives, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences 1581, 1582 (2001).

[21] Book and Periodical Council, Bannings and Burnings in History, Freedom to Read, https://www.freedomtoread.ca/resources/bannings-and-burnings-in-history/.

[22] Id.

[23]  Id.

[24] Marx, supra note 19 at 1586.

[25] In the United States, hate speech can only be censored/criminalized when it directly incites imminent criminal activity or consists of specific threats of violence targeted against a person or group. So, banning a book for hate speech is a difficult bar to meet under First Amendment jurisprudence, unless it is directed toward someone(s) in particular and specifically threatening violence against them. See, Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. 443, 131 S. Ct. 1207 (2011).

[26] Id.

[27] See, U.S. Const. amend. I.

[28] See, Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U.S. 301, 308, 85 S. Ct. 1493 (1965), with Justice Brennan opining, “the protection of the Bill of Rights goes beyond the specific guarantees to protect from Congressional abridgment those equally fundamental personal rights necessary to make the express guarantees fully meaningful. I think the right to receive publications is such a fundamental right. The dissemination of ideas can accomplish nothing if otherwise willing addressees are not free to receive and consider them. It would be a barren marketplace of ideas that had only sellers and no buyers.”

[29] UN General Assembly, Calling of an International Conference on Freedom of Information, A/RES/59 (Dec. 14, 1946), available at https://daccess-ods.un.org/tmp/937158.912420273.html

[30] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217 (III) A, U.N. Doc. A/RES/217(III) (Dec. 10, 1948) at Art. 19.

[31] UN General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, E/CN.4/1995/32 (Dec. 14, 1995), at para. 35, available at https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G94/750/76/PDF/G9475076.pdf?OpenElement.

[32] Toby Mendel, Freedom of Information as an Internationally Protected Human Right, ARTICLE 19 (n.d.), https://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/publications/foi-as-an-international-right.pdf.

[33] Examples of student resistance that lead to governmental change include the 1989 protests for democracy in China resulting in the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the 1989 strikes inspired by students in, then, Czechoslovakia resulting in the Velvet Revolution. See, Ranjit Powar, Power of Student Activism in Shaping History, The Tribune India (Dec. 26, 2019), https://m.tribuneindia.com/news/comment/power-of-student-activism-in-shaping-history-17170. (also stating “politically aware and socially conscious students cannot be expected to remain mute spectators to perceived injustice and hegemony.”)

[34] Bradbury, supra note 2 at 299.