I was horrified when my four-year-old daughter ran out the door one morning with a copy of Go the F**k to Sleep in her hot little hands. She wanted to bring it to school. I’m not even sure how she found it in our house (it was a gift from my mother-in-law), but I can understand why she mistook it for a children’s book along the lines of Art and Max or One, two of my girls’ favorites. It looks like a kids’ book. Obviously, despite my belief in robust free speech rights, I have my limits on what type of material is appropriate for my four-year-old twins. But the rule I would apply to them is not what I would apply to older children and young adults. A group of researchers from Brigham Young University (BYU) would probably disagree with me.
In their study of the 40 most popular novels aimed at children ages 9-18, the BYU researchers build a case for imposing content warnings on book covers, touting the perceived virtues of the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) rating system, after finding a shitload of profanity in adolescent literature. Ultimately, however, the researchers stop short of outright advocating for content warnings that would inform parents about the age appropriateness of the book, saying, “We simply do not know enough about the content of adolescent literature to make that leap.” To be fair, they’re not saying that books containing profanity should be banned from children’s bookshelves; they claim only that parents should be informed of the level of profanity in these books. The problem is that the content warnings for which they make a case could be just as bad as censorship if the ratings are at all like the ones generated by the MPAA.
As half of a two-working parent household with three children, part of me welcomes the idea of having a little symbol on the jacket of my children’s books that tells me whether the content is age appropriate. I don’t have time to skim every page to find out for myself. But honestly, it’s the type of information that a symbol can’t tell me. Few books marketed towards children or adolescents are actually filled with profanity or obscenity. Only I can make an accurate assessment, using my own community standards, to determine whether a book is age-appropriate. No governmental or institutional board or agency can make that assessment for me. The researchers’ beloved MPAA is a prime example of why rating systems don’t work, as both an arbitrary and discriminatory system.
The Huffington Post’s blog advises the free speech-lovers among us to calm down, claiming, “In an internet age, not to mention a country in which the first amendment is so highly prized, it seems doubtful that a new restrictive code either should or could ever be applied to books of any kind.” Maybe the internet would render a rating system imposed on children’s books meaningless, but I doubt the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would intervene. It is well-established law that the government may deny children access to speech that it may not deny to adults. See, e.g., Sable Communications of Cal., Inc. v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115, 126 (1989) (there is a “compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors” and that permits “shielding minors from the influence of literature that is not obscene by adult standards”). Furthermore, a rating system is not inherently equivalent to censorship because it purports to only advise parents of content so that they may make an “informed” decision about the types of books they want their children to read, assuming the rating system is based on more than arbitrary and discriminatory notions of morality and age appropriateness.
Problematically, the researchers also seem to be advocating for stricter notions of what is “age appropriate.” For example, the researchers included “excretory words” (like, “crap!”) and “mildly offensive” words (like, “damnit!”) in their analysis, categories that, in my opinion, are rather inoffensive for an older child or teenager to read. Furthermore, the researchers note that, “age guidance is given on the New York Times Best Seller List, [but] this information is not on the books themselves.” Online bookstores also tend to include a “reading level.” But apparently, the current age guidance is not strict enough for these researchers, who seem to be horrified that books intended for teenagers include any profanity at all.
So really, these researchers are advocating for “cleaner” books, making me wonder just how many f-words it would take to label a book “unsuitable” for minors’ to read in the eyes of the researchers? It does not surprise me that they hail from a religious-affiliated school that requires its students to “engage in an honest and virtuous lifestyle” and suspended a 19-year-old student from the basketball team because he had consensual sexual relations with his girlfriend. While I do not question the right of the school to impose that type of moral standard on its students, I would not want a similar level of morality to be the basis for a nationwide rating system of books.
If a rating system based on such a sensitive notion of offensiveness were imposed on the back of books, I am free to ignore the rating and purchase the book for my children anyway. My worry is that an inappropriate warning may dissuade other parents or school districts (who don’t necessarily understand the basis for the rating) from purchasing the books, thereby depriving children and teenagers of rich literary material simply because some highly sensitive person somewhere thought it was offensive.