Censor spectrum

On one of the library tours that I gave last January, a student asked me if book banning was still a problem. I regretfully had to inform them that, yes, book challenges and bans happen regularly. This post highlights just a few of the most recent, from the minor to the kind of story that turns me into a towering rage monster.

Clean Reader: Bowdlerizing Since 2015

My usual response to people who are offended by something in print is to not read that book. That book is clearly not for them. Given that there are so very many books out there in the world, this doesn’t really limit their reading choices. However, if they feel left out, there is now an app that can take the swear words out of literature: Clean Reader. The Washington Post story on Clean Reader begins with a reminder about a publisher who wanted to publish Huckleberry Finn without all those offensive n-words. Clean Reader isn’t censorship in the traditional sense; it’s Bowdlerization.

This sort of thing makes me roll my eyes. Yes, the n-word is offensive, but it’s there for a reason in Huckleberry Finn. Taking out the words that offend changes the meaning and the effect of the book.

Won’t someone think of the children?

When I worked for my alma mater before I took a job at my current library, a student worker got in trouble for using a Sharpie to put bikinis on the nude women in the foreign magazines like Der Spiegel. This is a step up in intensity from Clean Reader. In this case, someone took it upon themselves to cover up what they thought someone else would be offended by and should be protected from. Today on Twitter, a librarian used the #LibrarianProblems* hashtag to share a photo of a damaged copy of a book by Eric Carle.

Like someone who has just eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, the person who borrowed the Eric Carle book strategically covered the innocent nude figures with homemade leaves. Not only did they ruin a copy of a children’s’ book—which are surprisingly expensive—but they crossed the line I draw in the metaphorical sand when it comes to censorship. My issue here is that this person made the decision about what other people should be protected from. Further, I believe that making a big deal about something like nudity creates an issue out of nothing.

At this point in the censor spectrum, I am annoyed. What sends me over the edge is this story from Kansas. The Kansas State Senate voted at the end of February to pass:

A bill making it easier to prosecute teachers and school administrators for distributing materials deemed harmful to minors passed the Kansas Senate on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 56, which passed 26-14, removes a provision from current statute that protects schools against such prosecution. It keeps the protection in place for universities, museums and libraries.

The law makes it theoretically possible to send teachers to jail for assigning books that are “deemed harmful.” Harmful is not defined. Leaving the law vague opens the door to a very scary place. The law was originally intended to protect children from being exposed to pornography—another term that doesn’t have a legal definition. My first thought is, “Does this happen often enough that there needs to be a law against it?” I can understand wanting to protect children from pornography, but it’s such a slippery term. The article from the Kansas City Star that I linked to at the top of this paragraph goes on to report that, “Earlier in the week, Rep. Joseph Scapa, a Wichita Republican, called a book by Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize-winning author, pornographic.” This is the problem. One person’s pornography is another person’s essential American author.

I need to wrap this post up soon, because I can feel myself starting to slide into gibbering fury.

Stories like these—Clean Reader, defacing library books, jailing people for “distributing materials deemed harmful to minors”—are the reason why librarians still carry a torch for intellectual freedom. They are why I point out that the children’s books in my library are where visitors can find most of the books on ALA’s “Frequently Challenged Books” list and give presentations about book banning and censorship. They are why I share information via Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to other librarians and readers.

* One of my favorite sources of information about what’s happening in the daily lives of librarians and libraries.


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