It is Banned Books Week, designated by the American Library Association and others as the time for “celebrating the freedom to read.” Of course, having the freedom to read whatever one wants is essential to a free society. But regular abuse of the term “banning,” and the violations of freedom that often occur before any so-called banning is attempted, are just as crucial to recognize if we really care about liberty.
Unfortunately, just about any time a parent or taxpaying citizen challenges the presence of a book in a public library or school, deafening alarm bells are rung that there is an attempted banning underway. But, as this Slate article nicely explains, there is very little actual “banning” being attempted, if by banning we mean “officially or legally prohibiting” someone from accessing a book. Just because you may not be able to get a book at a library does not mean you cannot legally obtain it at all. For the most part, it just means you have to hop onto Amazon and buy the book yourself. Which takes us to the violation that occurs before most “banning” is even tried.
As I explained a few years back, when a public library or school purchases a book with taxpayer dollars, it compels taxpayers to support someone else’s speech – a violation of liberty. This is even more the case if the library decides that it will purchase some books and not others, which it must do unless it has, essentially, infinite funds. Then a government entity not only compels support of speech, but chooses to elevate some speech above others.
Most knotty, however, is when public schools put specific books on recommended reading lists or assign them to be read. Then a government entity chooses to elevate some speech and, if it is assigned, requires people to read it. In that case, far from threatening to ban such books, objecting parents are often trying to defend their children against imposition of speech – speech elevated in part with their money – that the parents find age inappropriate, or offensive, or immoral. Of course that affects other families who might think the books should be read, but the violation of liberty is not in the actions of the objecting parents, but the government picking and choosing speech to begin with. And no, as happens too often, it is not okay to just dismiss the concerns of objecting parents as being from fringe types. The very essence of a free society is protecting everyone’s rights. Nor is it acceptable for the majority to simply default to “well, kids are going to be exposed to this stuff sooner or later, so they must read it now.” That essentially says “we, the government, will decide what is, or is not, okay for your child, now butt out,” a very frightening authority to hand over to government. This is a major reason to demand educational freedom: it lets families and educators – not government – decide among themselves what children will be taught.
Recent polling has shown that 28 percent of Americans would be okay with actually banning some books – making it illegal to publish or read them – and we should absolutely condemn any such efforts. But challenges to books in public libraries and schools are very different animals, and the violations of freedom occur before such “banning” efforts ever come along.