On Censorship

an essay on the occasion of
How To Get Suspended and Influence People
coming out in paperback.

(not to mention attempts to ban the book in Idaho!)

          I could make this a very short essay - the U.S. Constitution guarantees that I have the right to write a book like How To Get Suspended and Influence People, that Random House has the right to print it, and that people of all ages have a right to read it. You cannot go to jail for buying, selling, loaning or reading my book. Period. And - let's get this out of the way - I don't think there's anything inappropriate about the book at all. That could really be the whole essay.

          But, at the same time, parents have every right to forbid their children to read it. Wal-Mart has the right not to put it on the shelves (and I'm honored that they don't, frankly). And Random House could always have decided not to publish it in the first place. And I realize, of course, that the first amendment isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card. I'm not about to use free speech as an argument in my favor if you think the book is lousy or that I'm a total jerk for writing it. The fact that someone has a right to their opinion doesn't mean that their opinion doesn't make them a jerk.

          I'm no stranger to censorship. I went to high school in Snellville, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb at the southern tip of Gwinnett County - recently, my old school has been in national news due to efforts to ban the Harry Potter books there on the grounds that they incite children to become witches. The names of the books being challenged have changed in the few years since I lived there, but the issues are nothing new. Typing "Gwinnett censorship" into google currently yields 29,700 results.

          When I was a teenager, I was the youngest member of a group called the Gwinnett Interfaith Alliance - we dealt with freedom of speech, expression and religion issues. In a town where no one batted an eye when a gym teacher told me I could improve my basketball skills through faith in Jesus, we certainly had our hands full.

          One group that emerged in town during that period was called Family Friendly Libraries - their goal was to remove any book they deemed inappropriate from the shelves of the county library system, starting with The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll, which they thought glorified drug use.

          Now, The Basketball Diaries is a graphic, harrowing view of life as a heroin addict, and I find it difficult to believe that anybody, anywhere, ever would think that it glorified drug use. Defending the book was easy - but the book itself wasn't the issue. Had we convinced them to back down off of that book, they would have just moved to the next book on their list. (Updated to add - and the same goes for MY book - when the woman in Idaho tried to ban it, she could have picked any book as her target. That she picked mine might have been totally random - it's just the book she chose to spearhead her push against the library.).

          But defending the book itself was important, too. Family Friendly Libraries - like most book banning groups - claimed that they were against censorship, just in favor of restricting childrens' access to adult material. This may have been nonsense, but most people will agree that some books are not appropriate in some places. I can't imagine that any teacher would assign her third grade class to read Fanny Hill, the classic piece of 18th century erotica, and expect to have a job the next day - clearly, at least, the book is well beyond the reading level of your average eight year old. Taking Fanny Hill out of a grade school library is a form of censorship, but it would be hard to argue that it isn't a sensible decision. (updated to add: and my book doesn't really belong with the picture books any more than Bleak House belongs with books about home improvement But that's a sorting issue - and it's an issue we leave up to the librarians. But whether the book is categorized correctly and whether it should be available at all are two very different issues).

          There are some things that the first amendment certainly doesn't cover. Freedom of Speech doesn't mean that you can say or do whatever you want whenever you want or however you want. You can say pretty much anything you like about the President onstage during a concert, but you'll get in trouble if you spray-paint your opinion on the side of the White House. You can burn a flag, but if you charge into the oval office and set fire to a flag - or anything else, for that matter - you're gonna get jumped by about fifteen guys from the secret service. You can't make death threats, or shout "fire" in a crowded theatre, or publish slander and get away with it by claiming freedom of speech. This is just common sense.

          These, however, are just the easy issues. Free Speech has also been ruled not to protect smut - but for something to be considered smut in the first place, it has to have absolutely no redeeming social or artistic value. Who gets to be the judge of whether any given work has real artistic value or not?

          I think that any teacher should be able to assign my book to an English or social studies class without fear. But if a school decided to forbid a teacher from assigning the book to a math class - on the grounds that you won't learn anything about math from it - is that censorship?

          Exactly where to draw the line can be a very thorny issue, and I didn't intend for How To Get Suspended and Influence People to provide any answers to these issues - but I'm glad to hear that that classes have used it as a springboard to discuss them.

          People will always argue about how far is too far - and, while I'm not a lawyer, my understanding is that Cornersville Trace Middle School has every right to decline to show Leon's movie, La Dolce Pubert to the sixth and seventh graders. Since the project was approved by a teacher, suspending Leon might be a harder move to defend, but I suspect that the courts would probably end up siding with the school in the end.

          Fortunately, though, there is such a thing as common sense. Few, if any, third grade teachers would consider assigning Fanny Hill in the first place. No math teacher will think that reading my book will help kids get a better grade on the long division test. And most sane principals would see right away that suspending Leon because one teacher thinks his movie is "immoral" would be a major overreaction - the kind of reaction that will create more problems than it solves. That's usually what happens when someone tries to censor a book - it doesn't solve anything, it just creates more problems.

          While it may be legal to remove a popular book from a library simply because someone objects to the content, it's still a form of censorship, and I still believe that it's wrong. The first amendment guarantees that everyone in the country has a right to buy and read my book. Stores have a right to sell it, and libraries have a right to put it on the shelves. Or not, at their discretion. If you feel that it doesn't belong in your own home, that's entirely up to you.

          But if you want to read Fanny Hill, it's probably waiting in your local library (presumably in the adult section), and I believe that it has every right to be there.


Adam Selzer
August, 2008

Here are some other issues to consider and discuss:

        - A major retailer says they won't sell any CDs that contain obscene language unless they display a warning label on the cover. Is this censorship?

        - A baseball player gives an interview to Sports Illustrated in which he launches into a rant against minorities, using words such as "nigger," "kike," and "spic." The team threatens to fire or trade him, since his contract specifies that he must behave in a manner that does not embarrass the organization. Has his right to free speech been violated? Are fans who won't go to games in which this player is the starting pitcher anti-free speech? What about teammates who don't want to play on the team with him anymore? Are they free speech haters?

        - A guy runs a website about naughty songs kids have been singing on the playground for decades. Even though the songs were written by and/or collected from kids, he tends to spell the naughty words with dashes in case any kids see it, and asks commenters to keep it clean. Is this censorship, or just covering his butt, as long as the irony doesn't escape him?

        - A man drops five thousand anti-war pamphlets into central park from a helicoptor, and is arrested for littering. Is the arrest legit?

        - Person A and Person B have a televised debate about gay marriage. Even Person B's defenders say that he lost the argument. Person B goes back on TV and says that people who say his opinions are indefensible are unpatriotic haters of free speech. Is he right?

        - A group tries to remove Great Expectations by Charles Dickens from a town library shelf, because, in their view, the entire first chapter, in which Pip frets about bringing bread to an escaped convict, is somehow symbolic of masturbation - in particular, they say that, while Dickens doesn't mention it, readers are likely to imagine butter (semen) dripping down Pip's leg when he hides a bit of bread in his pocket to bring to the convict. They argue that, since Dickens was not American, he is not protected by the constitution, anyway. The library board votes to remove the book just to shut them up. Is this censorship, just plain stupidity, or both? And do the people on these groups have dirty minds or what?

        - A man sues a bar for displaying obscenity when he finds out that they have an artistic nude painting of his wife on display. The judge rules that, in the context of a bar, it's clearly obscene, but it would be fine in a local art museum. Does this make any sense at all?

        - A parent calls the school and complains that, while Huckleberry Finn may be a masterpiece of American literature, it also contains racial slurs, and ought to be banned. To avoid a fight, the school librarian quietly removes the book from the shelf, and lists it as "checked out" or "missing" in the computer. Is this censorship? Is it happening at your school?

How To Get Suspended and Influence People comes out in parperback on September 9th.

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My Snellville Blogger said...

Just to update you on Snellville, the old blue law that keeps restaurants from serving alcohol on Sundays has been changed to allow it. We are inching into the new century, but now there's a lawsuit to stop it, and so it goes...

Wasn't the woman who wanted to ban the Harry Potter books from Loganville GA? I think she was, but I'd have to look that up.
What is so funny about censorship (if there is anything funny about it) is that the protesters bring MORE attention to the book they want banned. So here's hoping your writing gets banned everywhere, it's sure to drive sales!

Adam Selzer said...

I hear a lot of places are slowly getting rid of the blue laws - the economy makes them harder and harder to justify!

I wasn't in GA anymore by the time the HP thing started; she might have been in Loganville (next town over for those of you keeping score). But when my first book came out, every time I spoke to a group of librarians, the first thing I'd say was "Who's heard of Gwinnett County?"

But, to be fair, the town/county have certainly matured over the years since I first moved there in the 90s. I remember when the Snellville website launched; it was all stuff about Y2k and columns about conspiracy theories! Much nicer now.

Adam's New Book: Sept 2013