You’ve Got to Fight for Your Right to Read

In Whitney's Post on September 20, 2010 at 11:25 pm

“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 finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

–          Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.

As long as there have been books, there have been those who oppose them. Fortunately, along with this opposition comes an equally strong, if not stronger, defense. This defense for intellectual freedom is not only strong, but proud. Librarians and readers alike celebrate intellectual freedom every year in the form of Banned Books Week. As this year’s Banned Books Week approaches (September 25 – October 2), I’ve decided to delve into the history of the event and its importance.

Due to a large increase in the number of books challenged in 1982, Banned Books Week was launched by librarian and former director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, Judith Krug.  Banned Books Week is a celebration of Intellectual Freedom, the First Amendment, and our rights as Americans to read what we want, no matter how controversial. All viewpoints are supported by BBW, even those that aren’t popular or “normal.” No matter how unorthodox an opinion is, we have a right to access, and form our own opinion, about it. Banned Books Week is not only a celebration of books, but of the human right to knowledge and information.

According to the ALA, the top three reasons cited by the Office of Intellectual Freedom for challenging books are: the material is considered “sexually explicit,” the material contained “offensive language,” or the material was thought to be “unsuited to any age group.” Books commonly challenged for these reasons include The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. A more thorough list of recently challenged or banned books is available here. When a book is challenged, who comes to its rescue? Luckily, we have librarians, teachers, parents, and booksellers to fight for our right to read. These same librarians, teachers, parents, and booksellers use BBW to teach the “importance of our First Amendment rights and the power of literature.”

Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association; American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression; the American Library Association; American Society of Journalists and Authors; Association of American Publishers; and the National Association of College Stores.  It is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. Amnesty International also uses Banned Books Week to draw “attention to the plight of individuals who are persecuted because of the writings that they produce, circulate or read.” They focus on writers and journalists who have been killed or imprisoned for their work, including Rwandan journalist Jean Leonard Rugambage, who was killed in June and Iranian journalist Hengameh Shahidi, who is currently serving a six year prison sentence.


“About Banned & Challenged Books.” Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/banned/aboutbannedbooks/index.cfm. September 20, 2010.

“Banned Books Week 2010.” Retrieved from http://www.amnestyusa.org/events/banned-books-week/page.do?id=1721019. September 20, 2010.

“Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read.” Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/banned/bannedbooksweek/index.cfm. September 20, 2010.

“Info: Banned Books Week.” Retrieved from http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/info.html. September 20, 2010.

Samuels, Dorothy. “Judith Krug.” Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/15/opinion/15wed4.html?_r=1. September 20, 2010.

Jean Leonard Rugambage, who was killed in June and Iranian journalist Hengameh Shahidi who is currently serving a six year sentence in prison.

  1. As future librarians, it seems to me that Banned Books Week is not only about censorship, but about our responsibility as public service professionals to enable the public at large to be exposed to as many different viewpoints and ideas as possible. The freedom to gain new knowledge and information is not only a first amendment right, but part of a librarian’s duty as a employee (perhaps a moral one as well) in order to provide effective service and a variety of information to all patrons. Without doing so, I beleive that we are in fact, “cheating,” our profession, skirting around topics that are considered too sexually explicit, racially insensitive, or morally wrong. This is ultimately up to the patron to decide; librarians are here only to provide information and there should be no discrimination about who we serve and what we are able to give. Although many librarians might hope that patrons would want to increase their knowledge capacity in some way, ultimately, the decision to pick up the book is not anyone’s to make but the patrons, and no organization has the right to ban a book or a source of information for everyone. This only resorts the books and libraries to pieces of propoganda, a path that has been considered in the past, and with disastrous effects at that.

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