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Banned Books Week Reminds Us That Censorship Is Alive and Well in the Internet Age

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The week of Sept 24 - Oct 1 is Banned Books Week, a time when libraries, schools, and bookstores celebrate our First Amendment freedom to read while drawing attention to the harms that censorship does to our society and our individual freedoms.

Whether in print or digital format, books are a precious resource, providing us with information, entertainment, opinions, ideas, and a window on lives far different from our own. Free access to books and ideas is the foundation of our government and our society, enabling every person to become an educated participant in our democratic republic. Libraries are an essential part of this process, providing the only access for those who do not have the resources to purchase or access books and information on their own.

Yet, far more often than we may realize, individuals and groups have sought to restrict access to library books they believed were objectionable on religious, moral, or political grounds, thereby restricting the rights of every reader in their community. For example, this summer the Republic (Mo.) school board voted to remove Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer from the school library as a result of a complaint that the book "teaches principles contrary to Biblical morality and truth." More than 150 students and their families have lost access to those books; while a local and national outcry caused the school board to return the books to the library, the books are now on a locked shelf and unavailable to students absent the consent of a parent or guardian.

It's become popular in the last few years to argue that this kind of book censorship is no big deal. Isn't the decision to ban the books just a way of helping parents protect their children? What does it matter if a book is banned from a school or library if kids can obtain books from online retailers?

Such censorship is, in fact, a very big deal. Such censorship matters to those who no longer can exercise the right to choose what they read for themselves. It matters to those in the community that cannot afford books or a computer, and for whom the library is a lifeline to the Internet and the printed word. And it matters to all of us who care about protecting our rights and our freedoms and who believe that no one should be able to forbid others in their community from reading a book because that book doesn't comport with their views, opinions, or morality.

Let's remember that public libraries and public school libraries are for all the people in the community, and that every community embraces a tapestry of beliefs, lifestyles, and values, from gay to straight, from liberal to conservative, rich and poor, and everywhere in between. Libraries are for everyone, and their collections need to be as diverse as the communities that they serve. Just because views are unpopular with the majority in a community does not mean that we should block individuals' access to those views.

And let's not forget that publicly funded libraries are government institutions obligated to uphold the First Amendment rights of all people--including young people--to receive information.

Certainly, not every book is right for each reader, and librarians fully support parents' rights to decide what books are best suited for their children. But no one should be able to make reading choices for other people's children, or require that the reading materials available to a community be limited to that which comports with their personal beliefs.

Should you doubt the very real impact that free access to books can have on just one child, I'll share the story of one little girl. The child's school was celebrating Banned Books Week by reading from banned and challenged works, and a librarian began to read from And Tango Makes Three, an award-winning picture book by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson that tells the story of two male Emperor Penguins who hatch an egg and raise a chick together in the Central Park Zoo in New York City. The book is ranked as the number one most challenged book in the U.S., based on challenges that claim that the book is unsuitable for its target age group because of its religious viewpoint and homosexual themes.

After the librarian finished reading And Tango Makes Three, the little girl--the child of same-sex parents--stood up and cheered. It was the first time ever that a book that mirrored her family life had been read and celebrated in public. And it was the first time that she felt as if she belonged. Had the book been banned from her library, all of that would have been taken away from her.

Banned Books Week exists to remind us all that the freedom to read cannot be taken for granted, and that protecting the freedom to read is never more important than when the books under attack contain ideas or opinions that are unpopular or offensive to some.

Join the American Library Association in celebrating the freedom to read by joining in the Virtual Read-Out, where people across the world will read from their favorite banned or challenged books, and share the videos on YouTube.