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Celebrating the Freedom to Read

Document Date: September 26, 2006

The instinct to ban, burn and otherwise keep books and articles and other pieces of information from the reading public is not unique to our age. Works both notable and obscure have come under the scrutiny of censors from the beginning of time. But censors have become increasingly emboldened to go after the source of the information that whistleblowers and others provide journalists. Prosecutors have been wielding subpoenas to try to find reporters’ sources.

The Bush administration, its officials and supporters were outraged earlier this year when journalists at the Washington Post and the New York Times who exposed questionable policies and actions of the administration were awarded journalism’s highest prize, the Pulitzer. These reporters belong in prison with their “treasonous” Pulitzers, went the criticism.

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of the Times disclosed how the shadowy and powerful National Security Agency is illegally eavesdropping on telephone and e-mail communications between people in the United States and overseas. Administration officials found and fired a CIA officer who they said leaked information to Dana Priest of the Washington Post about secret CIA prisons around the world, especially in Eastern Europe. They are still looking for the person who gave Risen and Lichtblau information about the NSA illegal warrantless wiretapping program.

In the last year, especially, reporters have either been tossed in jail or threatened with jail unless they reveal their sources.

How does this relate to banning books? After all, didn’t James Risen’s revelations about the administration’s illegal action come out in a book shortly after it ran in the New York Times?

The answer is that cumulatively, the actions by the government serve to chill speech down the road by discouraging whistleblowers from coming forward. As a result, that book, or newspaper and magazine article will not get written, the television and radio reports will not be broadcast and our democracy would be starved of that information.

Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Library Association (ALA), the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Association of College Stores. The Library of Congress Center for the Book endorses it.

Many bookstores and libraries across the nation join in the celebration with displays and readings of books that have been banned or threatened throughout history. These include works ranging from the Bible to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Each year, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom receives hundreds of reports on books and other materials that were “challenged” (their removal from school or library shelves was requested). The ALA estimates the number represents only about a quarter of the actual challenges. “Most Challenged” titles include the popular Harry Potter series of fantasy books for children by J.K. Rowling. The series drew complaints from parents and others who believe the books promote witchcraft to children.

The challenges reported reflect a continuing concern with a wide variety of themes.

Other Most Challenged titles include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, for its use of language, particularly references to race; It’s Perfectly Normal, a sex education book by Robie Harris, for being too explicit, especially for children; and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, for the description of rape she suffered as a child.

Banned Books Week, which has been observed annually during the last week of September since 1982, reminds Americans not to take for granted their precious freedom to read. The ACLU and the American Library Association (ALA) are urging Americans to “Elect to Read a Banned Book,” in honor of this year’s Banned Books Week. Bookstores and libraries across the nation will help “get out the vote” with displays and readings from books – the Bible, Little Red Riding Hood, and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men – that have been banned or threatened throughout history.

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