This entry represents 50% of my total grade for EDFOUND 723: Issues, Perspectives, and Directions in Education. Although I always find a professor’s input on my work valid, I feel that advice coming from the intellectual ivory tower can be quite insular at times. What good is everything that I have learned if I never share it with anyone other than a single education authority? In the future I am going to be publishing more of my academic work.
I chose the topic of book banning for my final paper because I find it to be a despicable practice when antithetically applied to democratic principles. There are definitely situations in which a book ban is legitimate, which I take the time to address. In my paper I examine the efforts of Wisconsin native Ginny Maziarka. If aviary guides are to be trusted she would be classified as a “common loon,” but I can’t really quote satirical ad hominem attacks in an academic paper can I?
Book Banning in Wisconsin
An Examination of First Amendment Rights
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
US Constitution, First Amendment
The Framers of the US Constitution recognized the power of dissent from the British crown evident in the Declaration of Independence. The right to hold dissenting opinion – guaranteed to American citizens by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights – is the cornerstone on which American democracy is built. In order to sustain the free exchange of ideas in a democracy an American citizen must be guaranteed freedom of speech. In contemporary society public education exists to insure that future citizens will engage in conscious social reproduction of American democracy by exercising their First Amendment rights. Public and school libraries serve future American citizens by providing access to education materials protected by the First Amendment that are vital to sustaining a healthy democracy.
The First Amendment also affords a citizen the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This right allows citizens to challenge the government for actions carried out in the interest of the public good. In public and school libraries a redress of grievances usually comes in the form of a challenge to a book. Citizens who wage challenges against books are often opposed to the literary content contained within and call for a ban. Banning a book for the public at large is a First Amendment issue, in that the ban limits public access to material that citizens have a legal right to view.
Those who petition the government to ban books are well within their rights to do so. But book banning does not just affect the person who finds the material in question offensive. Book banning presents a scenario where one person’s First Amendment rights end where another’s begin. Limiting access to materials that contain dissenting opinions of what is right, good, and just has a direct impact on the ability of citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights. Therefore, it is in the interest of current and future educators to understand the complexities of the question: What First Amendment rights are affected when a book challenge is raised? To examine this issue I will look into an ongoing book banning effort in Wisconsin, scrutinize Democratic Education author Amy Gutmann’s stance on the issue, and offer my own analysis.
In July 2009 a book-banning incident in West Bend, Wisconsin managed to garner national attention on CNN.com. The article focuses on the efforts of Ginny Maziarka and her opposition to young-adult titles that contain sexual content she deems inappropriate for young readers. She requested that the library label the books as sexually explicit and move them to them to the adult section. Her efforts eventually led to the city council not renewing the contracts of four library board members opposed to following Maziarka’s request. The four library board members maintained that established library policy prevented them from limiting access to the challenged titles as per Maziarka’s request. Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the American Library Association, who has been closely following the challenge, states in the CNN article that Maziarka’s request would shelve the questioned titles not for age or readability, but for content that Maziarka disapproves of. Caldwell-Stone notes that restricting access in this manner is a form of censorship in conflict with First Amendment rights (i.e. a ban on placing Young-adult literature in the appropriate section). Even after the unexpected dismissals the current library board voted not to make changes to their existing book challenge policies. To date the library has not complied with Maziarka’s request. In the meantime her list of objectionable books has grown to 82 titles, including several that have won major literary awards.
Maziarka’s continued efforts against what she finds objectionable would ruffle author Amy Gutmann’s feathers. Gutmann does not mince words when addressing the First Amendment violations most cases of book banning constitute in Democratic Education, as evidenced by her opening remarks. “Decisions by local school boards to ban books from public-school libraries are among the most direct and open violations” (Gutmann 97). For Gutmann book banning places a restriction on the individual’s ability to have a rational deliberation. Shielding students from understanding why individuals hold alternative viewpoints prevents them from becoming fully informed citizens. A book ban, therefore, prevents the First Amendment right of the individual to arrive at their own conclusions about the content. When a citizen does not have access to the information contained within a banned book, they are unable to rationally debate the content.
For rational debate to occur an individual citizen must be able to share content with others. Unfortunately book challenges are rarely waged to protect just a single individual. Book banning grants an authority the power to decide what material is suitable not only for the individual to access, but the broader public. In this situation the individual is no longer able to exercise their First Amendment rights due to the ban and surrender their rights to the authority of another. “Most often the rationale for a challenge is to protect not just the complainant’s child but all students from accessing that resource” (Adams 49). According to the American Library Association topics that frequently garner the attention of concerned parents/guardians raising challenges are: sexuality, offensive language, violence, anti-family, religious, and material unsuited to an age-group. Because Maziarka’s list of objectionable Young-adult titles now extends to 82 titles, it may be safe to assume that the material covers all of the ALA’s outlined challenge topics. Rather than adhering to a democratic community standard for what is acceptable young-adult content, Maziarka aims to limit access in a manner that comports with her views. A book ban violates not only the individual’s First Amendment rights, but also that of the public, by arbitrarily determining what content is even suitable for rational deliberation.
Allying herself with the rights of the individual Gutmann asserts, “without the chance to assemble, debate, and elect, even well-educated citizens cannot engage in conscious social reproduction” (Gutmann 98). Gutmann then poignantly demonstrates that even though Americans are granted profound access to library material to engage in social reproduction, some limits on democratic freedom are accepted in the interest of maintaining democratic order. She affirms that it is perfectly reasonable to limit public access to certain materials on the grounds that it is not “educationally suitable for students… even though adults have a constitutional right” to view those materials i.e. pornography, extreme violence, offensive language (Gutmann 98). All other content that is deemed educationally suitable is fit to be shelved.
In the CNN article Maziarka claims that her challenge is “not talking about educational material. We’re talking about raunchy sex acts.” Much of her energy is directed towards Stephen Chbosky’s book The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which describes the story of a fictional high-school freshman, sex between his peers, an incident of rape, and discusses other controversial issues. Although Maziarka classifies this and several other young-adult books as pornographic in nature, her challenge is problematic to library administrators because “no authority has determined that any of the titles are pornographic or obscene.” In the case of The Perks of Being a Wallflower the content mirrors events that have occured in modern high-schools nationwide. If a book contains reasonable views on issues, and is not considered pornographic or obscene, then it may legitimately be shelved in a library.
Gutmann notes that the procedures that follow a challenge to the educational suitability of a book are frequently applied inconsistently with democratic values. Administrative boards supersede the authority of their own librarians by having little or no open deliberation on the matter before issuing a ban. The bans issued are often enforced arbitrarily or erratically, in that many other books shelved in a library can meet the conditions by which a single book is banned. According to Gutmann a legitimate ban must be the “result of deliberative democratic procedures, and ban only those books that… glorify abhorrent ways of life” (Gutmann 99).
Helen Adams outlines an example of an appropriate democratic book challenge process in her article The Freedom to Question: Challenges in School Libraries. First a challenge is raised on behalf of an individual, group, principal, teacher, or librarian. Once a formal written complaint is filed the complaint must be given to a committee. The committee must then consider testimony from those on both sides of the issue and deliberate. When all things have been considered the committee must render a decision and make recommendations about what the appropriate administrator is to do with the challenged resource. The complainant then has a right to address their opinions of the final decision and recommendation (Adams 49).
If there can be any good said of the incident in West Bend, Wisconsin it is that the city council, library board, and even Maziarka are to be commended for upholding First Amendment rights by debating the issue in public at length. Maziarka has taken her message to the internet, collected signatures for a public petition, spoken in public forums, and even inspired ideological opposition to participate in the debate with an equitable amount of fervor. The issue has also been covered in-depth by local print-media and television news sources.
Because citizens have been exercising their First Amendment rights, there is little doubt that Maziarka contends that her list of 82 books represent what Gutmann described as the glorification of “an abhorrent way of life.” Although Maziarka does take issue with other types of content in her efforts, her focus is primarily on sexuality. She holds that many of the books “that deal with homosexuality are gay-affirming” and that books written by “ex-gays” should be removed from the young-adult section. A search for her published views on homosexuality shows that she likens homosexuality to pedophilia, bestiality, illegal behavior, a public health risk, and a medical condition. Her published views on homosexuality, although questionable in their integrity and conflated with blatant falsehoods, are consistent with those expressed on the religious right end of the political spectrum. As an American citizen Maziarka’s positions are protected by the First Amendment, and she is well within her rights to hold them. Bearing that in mind, Maziarka’s beliefs do not necessarily mean that the remedy for her redress of grievances is guaranteed.
Maziarka’s challenge threatens the First Amendment rights of two primary groups of individuals. The first group is comprised of those who hold a dissenting opinion to Maziarka’s position; namely that homosexuality is an acceptable topic of rational deliberation in young-adult literature. It would be disingenuous to characterize this group as just the liberal political left, as exceptions along the entire political spectrum do exist. The second group is made up of citizens who hold no current opinion, but are free to formulate one based upon their ability to access the challenged materials. Again, individuals in this group may span the entire political spectrum.
There is little doubt that homosexuality is a controversial issue, just as violence, alternative religious perspectives, or offensive language use in young-adult literature are. According to Gutmann, however, the controversial nature of a topic is not sufficient to prohibit access carte blanche. The “rational deliberation of competing conceptions of the good life and good society” are requisite for comprehending “views represented by the adult citizenry.” (Gutmann 98). The First Amendment rights of the two groups listed in the previous paragraph outweigh Maziarka’s redress of grievances claim. Although she finds the individual concept of homosexuality especially repugnant, her views do not represent reasonable views held by the gestalt of the American public. Homosexuals, allies, and those who have yet to form an opinion on the matter are afforded the same First Amendment rights as heterosexual citizens to write, distribute, and read reasonable library material that address their concerns. The same application is valid for competing views on issues that Maziarka takes issue with in her growing list of objectionable books.
While researching this topic I came across a quote from an author frequently targeted for her books that put Maziarka’s challenge into perspective. Author Judy Blume’s books have been subjected to book bans for addressing sensitive topics such as menstruation, divorce, bullying, and teenage sexuality. For her the challenges are a natural reaction for individuals trying to protect their child.
“I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed…. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don’t read about it, their children won’t know about it. And if they don’t know about it, it won’t happen” (Petrilli 4).
The situation in West Bend can safely be characterized as a moral outrage. Maziarka’s crusade seeks to censor topics that she finds personally offensive. Although her moral outrage is legitimized by her belief structure, her views do not legitimize the removal of the books she has rallied against. It is entirely rational to defend children against perceived danger as Maziarka has, but the manner in which she intends to do so conflicts with First Amendment rights. She is well within her individual rights to control the content her children have access to. She is not within her First Amendment rights to prevent other young citizens from accessing reasonable library materials.
The fact that the West Bend library has not altered their policy, nor conceded to Maziarka’s ongoing demands, is a testament to the strength of the First Amendment. The issue in West Bend does not appear to be headed towards resolution anytime soon, but in the grand milieu of American society this does not matter. What matters is that dissenting opinion exists, that the First Amendment rights are exercised, and conscious social reproduction of American democracy continues unabated.
(2009). Frequently challenged books of the 21st century. Retrieved November 20, 2009, from American Library Association: Link
(2009, September 11). Ginny Mazurka’s Statements on Homosexuality. Retrieved November 20, 2009, from Sleepless in West Bend: Link
Adams, H. (2009). The Freedom to Question: Challenges in School Libraries. School Library Monthly, 26(3), 48-49. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.
Gutmann, A. (1999). Democratic Education (pp. 97-99). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Hanna, J. (2009, July 22). Library fight riles up city, leads to book-burning demand. Retrieved November 20, 2009, from CNN: Link
Petrilli, K. (2009). Banned Books Week: Celebrating Your (and Your Teens!) Freedom to Read. Young Adult Library Services, 7(4), 4-5. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.