The 1st Amendment, as most people you meet on the street can tell you (at least, I should hope they can), can be summarized by the freedom of religion, press, assembly, petition, and, of course, the freedom of speech. But just how far does freedom of speech extend?
Throughout US history, many levels of authority have tried to reign in the blessing and bane that is the freedom of speech. This can be seen most obviously, perhaps, in the banning of books. Some books that were banned in the past have become so popular that it’s hard to believe they were illegal in some places. In the banned book “hall of fame,” you can find To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, and The Great Gatsby. The reasons for their questioning range from foul language and possible upsetting of groups of people to sexual themes and violence. Sadly, focusing on these details of the books completely misses the reason why those elements had to be included. Just take The Great Gatsby, for example. Yes, it included language, violence, death, adultery, and hopelessness, but it perfectly summarized American culture in the 1920’s. Its negative elements were necessary in order to fully convey what it needed to. A novel is more than its individual elements; all the pieces work together to form a cohesive and meaningful whole. Sometimes we have to take the bad with the good when it comes to literature.
Forgetting the argument about the value of literature in general, though, this discussion raises the question of freedom of speech. Should schools and libraries be allowed to keep American citizens from obtaining and reading certain literature? After all, everyone has the right of free speech. No one can dictate what you can or cannot say, all in the name of freedom. Authors can write what they are moved to write, whether or not it causes offense or conflict. Their freedom is not complete, of course, unless people can actually read what they write. If books are banned, it’s essentially the same thing as keeping those writers from speaking.
Many might argue that specific books are not suitable for certain age groups. This is true. No one would want to suggest that your 6th grade child should be reading Fifty Shades of Grey, after all. What can we do about this? Many parents have taken the route of banding together to get books taken out of school libraries. Is this violating the 1st Amendment? Yes, but, for the sake of argument, let’s look at where the other side’s coming from. Those parents can make a case that there’s no violation. After all, a school is not the US government. They are allowed to have stricter rules than the constitution; how could they function without? Private schools especially have a right to decide how they want to run their own organization- in most cases. Many private schools already have strict rules, including a strict dress code and a limit on what activities their students can take part in (not going to movie theaters, no dancing, etc.). While these rules may be completely acceptable, book banning goes farther. Instead of limiting dress and action, it limits ideas, which is where the violation comes in. Banning is a dangerous route to take. Yes, you may have legitimate moral concerns about a certain reading choice, but another parent may have concerns about a reading choice that you think is perfectly fine and even beneficial. Their concerns are just as real to them as yours are to you. If you start outlawing books, where do you draw the line between moral concerns and matters of preference and opinion? It’s better for all involved to keep books in school libraries.
What if, instead of just the school library, a book in the school curriculum itself is offensive or questionable? Once again, parents often fight to remove it from the reading list. They’re completely within their rights to do so. After all, that’s an expression of their freedom of speech. The same problems remain as with the school library issue: who’s to say that someone won’t want to ban a book that you strongly support? Whenever you outlaw something, you run the risk of setting a precedent that you didn’t mean to set. Outlawing and banning, rather than the freedom and sharing of ideas, can easily become a trend. Perhaps a better option would be to speak directly with a teacher to see if the child can be excused from the assignment and read a different book as a substitute. Until a child has grown up, they are under their parent’s jurisdiction, so it’s acceptable for the parent to decide if a book is too questionable for them. Other people’s children, on the other hand, are not under this same parent’s authority, so they are not obligated to obey that parent’s ideals. In the interest of freedom for all parents involved, it would be best to leave the curriculum alone. It’s always better to err on the side of freedom when it comes to ideas. Just like in the federal government, it’s always harder to take away a law than it is to make a law. It’s harder to stop people from banning books than it is to make them start.
Some books are offensive, and some are not obviously beneficial; that’s true. In this world of vastly differing ideas, we would be hard-pressed not to come across something that offends us or that we think is questionable. In reality, this discussion boils down to one main question. Which would you rather have: a society where all ideas and books are welcome, even if you don’t approve of them, or a society where all books and ideas have to be deemed “acceptable” by an authority that will not be you? The 1st Amendment is there for a reason: to protect speech, to protect ideas. Err on the side of freedom.