Banning books to ‘protect children’

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by Brian Chicoine


COVER PHOTO Banned Do Not Read Credit Ques1 via FreePik scaled


Screen Shot 2015 11 013I recently read an article about a bill that was introduced, (and postponed – for this session anyway), to ban certain books in New Hampshire schools. Before I begin, I want to stress without a doubt that I am for protecting children. I believe that as a society we should be protecting the vulnerable and those who cannot speak for themselves. However, I do not believe that banning books is the way to do it. I may not agree with – or even like – some books out there, but it is not up to me (or in my opinion anyone else) to decide what is allowed to be published. It is up to the parents/caregivers to decide what is for a child to read. What if it is decided that the Bible is inappropriate, or the Qur’an, or the U.S. or a state Constitution? What if your favorite book or online newspaper/news site is deemed inappropriate? ‘What if’ could happen…

First, we ban books, then social media platforms, then music, then movies…and who knows what else? These bans

can happen simply because someone (or the people who decide) do not like that thing. Bans are a slippery slope.    

The latest book ban discussion is because State Representative Glenn Cordelli, (R – Tuftonboro) was the primary sponsor of a bill, HB 1419, which would have banned books from school if they were considered “harmful to minors,” in that they “appealed to the prurient, shameful, or morbid interest of minors, the material depicted or described nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse in a manner that is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community with respect to what is suitable for minors, the material lacked serious literary, scientific, medical, artistic, or political value for minors; and the material was inappropriate to the age of the minors to whom it is being made available or presented.” 

A quick look at the bill language may cause one to conclude that this bill was a good idea. One major problem is that the bill was subjective, as in who decides what is “harmful” or “suitable” for minors. For example, because our younger son is on the Spectrum, we do not allow him to read things that we allowed our older son to read when he was the same age. Appropriate is subjective and based on the individual.  

Banning books has been a controversial practice throughout history, often rooted in the desire to suppress dissenting ideas, control public discourse, and maintain societal norms. While the intention behind book bans might vary – from protecting young minds to preserving moral values – the repercussions of such actions ripple through societies, affecting authors, readers, educational systems, and the broader cultural landscape. 

Banned books pic photo Brian Chicoine file

Impact on Freedom of Expression

At the heart of the debate around book banning lies the fundamental right to freedom of expression. By censoring books, authorities often aim to silence voices that challenge prevailing ideologies, question authority, or present alternative perspectives. This suppression not only violates the rights of authors to express their thoughts and ideas but also infringes upon the public’s right to access a diverse range of viewpoints. The long-term effect is a homogenized culture where dissenting voices are marginalized, and critical thinking is stifled. In societies where book bans are prevalent, fear of persecution can deter writers from tackling controversial subjects, leading to self-censorship and a significant loss in the richness and diversity of literary works.

Implications for Education and Intellectual Development

Education systems are especially impacted by the banning of books, as it limits the resources available for learning and intellectual exploration. Schools and libraries serve as gateways to knowledge and cultural understanding. When books are removed from these institutions, students are deprived of opportunities to engage with complex ideas, develop critical thinking skills, and gain empathy through exposure to different life experiences. The censorship of educational content often reflects broader societal prejudices, and by leaving diverse voices out, it magnifies ignorance and intolerance. The long-term consequence is a populace that is less equipped to think independently, analyze information critically, and engage constructively.

Effects on Cultural Diversity and Understanding

Books are a vital medium for cultures to express their narratives, values, and histories. Banning books that depict the experiences of marginalized communities – such as those based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion – erases these narratives from public consciousness, contributing to a lack of understanding between different societal groups. By limiting access to a wide range of cultural expressions, societies lose the opportunity to celebrate diversity and build bridges of understanding across different communities.

Banned Books Week Graphic Credit Western Libraries AssociationStifling of Societal Progress and Innovation

Progress and innovation are often driven by challenging established norms and thinking beyond conventional boundaries. Books that have been subject to bans in various times and places frequently contain ideas that, although controversial at the time, have the potential to create social change and advance human understanding. By restricting access to such works, societies risk stagnating, as the absence of critical debate and the exchange of ideas impedes the evolution of thought and the ability to address complex global challenges. The stifling of intellectual and creative freedoms hampers not only the arts and sciences but also the capacity for societal growth and adaptation.

The legality of banning books in the United States

Although mostly protected by the First Amendment, the United States Supreme Court, (SCOTUS), has identified some cases where banning books is legally allowed. 

According to the Supreme Court, for a book to be banned, it must meet certain criteria. These criteria were developed in cases like Board of Education v. Pico (1982). 

In this landmark decision, the court ruled that school boards cannot remove books from school library shelves because they dislike the ideas in the books. The removal must be based on a valid educational reason. It must not be an attempt to suppress a particular viewpoint or ideology.

Moreover, the standard for determining whether a book is inappropriate involves evaluating whether the content is obscene. Obscenity is defined in the Miller v. California (1973) case. Under the Miller test, material is considered obscene if it lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value; if an average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find the work appeals to the prurient interest; and if it depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive way.

In practice, this means that for a book to be banned on legal grounds, there must be a solid, objective reason for banning it. This reason must be grounded in educational suitability or obscenity standards. Subjective disagreements over ideology or content do not provide legal justification for the banning of books. This standard is intended to protect the First Amendment rights of students and to ensure a broad and diverse curriculum that exposes students to various ideas and viewpoints.

Reading Inspires Photo Credit FreePik scaled

Additional Valid Reasons to Ban Books

In addition to educational appropriateness and obscenity, valid legal reasons to ban books from public school libraries can include content that is considered defamatory, engenders hatred, or incites violence. For instance, a school book that contains hate speech or promotes violence against specific groups can be deemed inappropriate for school settings.

Conclusion

The banning of books carries far-reaching implications that extend beyond the immediate act of censorship. It threatens the foundational principles of freedom of expression, undermines the educational and intellectual development of individuals, diminishes cultural diversity and understanding, and stifles the potential for societal progress and innovation. In an era where information is more accessible than ever, the practice of book banning highlights the power of written words to challenge, inspire, and transform societies. As history has repeatedly demonstrated, the suppression of ideas seldom succeeds in extinguishing them; rather, it often amplifies their influence and importance. 

House Bill 1419 may have been postponed, meaning only that it cannot return this session, but the fact that it was only defeated by a vote of 187-162 highlights the need for people to be involved. Write or call your representatives and tell them how you feel about this vague bill that, in my opinion, gives the government too much control over what our kids read or are exposed to. Click here to find out who your rep is. 

As always, I welcome feedback. You can email me at bchicoinemht@gmail.com


 

About this Author

Brian Chicoine

Brian Chicoine is a New Hampshire native who moved to Manchester from Raymond in 1980. While a student at Notre Dame College here in Manchester, Brian transferred to Rhode Island College in Providence, where he met his now wife, Jackie. Brian and Jackie spent the next 20 years living in Providence and Manchester, returning to Manchester with their two sons, (who are proud Manchester natives), in the fall of 2017. He and his family intend on staying in Manchester and are committed to helping make it an even better place to live, work, and play.