THE BLOG

The Book Ban Club Still Lives

09/25/2013 06:40 pm ET | Updated Nov 25, 2013

Seymour Hersh was 49 years old, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and just about every other major award in journalism. He had written four books -- one a best-seller -- and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. Along with Bob Woodward, he was the most famous investigative reporter in America. He was also cocky and brash and not used to being either threatened or intimidated.

And then he tackled a book on a subject that had Washington, D.C. in wild speculation -- the 1983 downing of a Korean airliner over the Sea of Japan by a Soviet fighter plane. Was the commercial airplane on a spying mission for the CIA? Had the plane simply drifted off course and was it then shot down, mercilessly, by the Russians? Did America know the plane was off course and did it sit idly by when the plane, with 269 passengers, including a Congressman, was shot down?

Hersh dug in, using his sources up and down the intelligence community chain of command, and developing new sources in the complex world of surveillance and spying. "A secret intelligence world whose operations are known to few outside the Pentagon," Hersh wrote. He was ready to write the most detailed account yet -- with top-secret data and high level anonymous sources. As he neared publication, he received an unprecedented telephone call from 73-year-old William Casey, Ronald Reagan's' gruff CIA Director.

Hersh was a veteran of phone conversations with CIA directors. Back in 1975, William Colby had confirmed for Hersh that the CIA had undertaken large-scale spying on American citizens, a conversation that eventually got Colby fired. They talked constantly even though Colby considered Hersh his toughest press adversary.

But Casey was a growler, not a supplicant, and he demanded to see the manuscript of what would become Hersh's book, The Target Is Destroyed: What really happened to Flight 007. Casey wanted to make sure Hersh did not reveal any secrets that would damage national security. He bluntly told Hersh he faced criminal prosecution if the book contained intelligence secrets. He knew nothing specific about the book's contents; only that Hersh had pierced the veil of the intelligence community, as he had done many times previously. "I'm apprising you that there is this damn law and we have to take it seriously," he declared.

Hersh's attorney warned him the FBI could, with a search warrant, rifle through his Washington house or downtown office. He spent a night going through notes, deleting references to secret sources. "Chilling doesn't begin to describe my feelings," Hersh said.

Hersh, one of the toughest reporters in America, wished he had told Casey to take a walk, but, he later admitted, he was a bit intimidated. The call "shook me up," Hersh said. He had never been threatened in such blunt language by a government official.

Hersh told Casey he would have to talk to his publisher at Random House, which at first blinked, but then declined Casey's demand. The book was published -- to critical acclaim as the best book on the subject yet written -- but the government took no action against Hersh. There would be no banning of the book.

I am thinking of all this especially this week because it is national Banned Books week, something that the American Library Association has publicized to highlight the fact that despite the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, the American penchant is often to try to silence books and authors we find either offensive or dangerous.

According to BannedBooksWeek.com, 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982. Books from Dav Pilkey's "Captain Underpants" series -- the adventures of two fourth-grade pranksters -- were the most frequently challenged in 2012.

Most recently a North Carolina school district banned Ralph Ellison's novel, Invisible Man, even though it has been universally acclaimed as an American classic. But some school board members and parents felt its language and sexual content made it inappropriate as a summer reading choice.

No surprise there because when it comes to banning books, sexuality and offensive language -- curse words -- top the list of reasons why even great books, ranging from Margaret Atwood's futuristic Handmaid's Tale to And Tango Makes Three, an illustrated children's book in which penguins perform mating rituals, have come under the censor's guillotine.

A possible threat to national security is perhaps more understandable, although usually the government's sense of a threat is more than likely really just an embarrassment that it is trying to hide. But getting a prior restraint on a book for national security is near impossible; getting a book banned because people cuss or if the content is "ungodly" (look out Harry Potter books!) is a lot easier. School boards seem to think it is their prerogative to make sure young minds are not polluted by talk of drugs or homosexuality.

Of course, school boards are usually just reacting to what they perceive as a mandate from parents to protect children. I embarrassedly learned this lesson in my senior year of high school in 1968. I was asked in an honors English literature class to read Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land. My father, who was very smart but very conservative, read the book with me. He was appalled that my school was making me read a book with curse words in it and explicit sexuality. He was not a prude, but he rarely said much more than damn or hell when he was mad. So he complained about the profanity. The English teacher was called to the woodshed.

It was two years later in college that I discovered John Stuart Mill's essay "On liberty," and first began to understand the utilitarian need in a society for minds to be able to wander all over the intellectual landscape. Instead of protecting young -- and old -- people from foreign ideas and concepts we should be expanding the marketplace of ideas.

To do otherwise, is classic authoritarianism -- whether it comes from a crusty old government official in Washington or a parent in North Carolina.