In 1976, a school district in the state of New York removed nine books from its libraries, claiming these books were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy,” and so the district felt it had to remove them to protect the children in its schools from “moral danger.” This removal sparked a court battle that culminated in a case before the United States Supreme Court in 1982, the last time our highest court looked at the constitutional implications of book banning. In an opinion written by First Amendment champion Justice Brennan, the Supreme Court concluded:
[L]ocal school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” Bd. of Educ. v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 863, 872 (1982) (quoting West Virginia Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943).
I wrote about this court case in a previous post, Banning Books That Promote Tolerance?, where I noted that its future is in doubt because it is a 30-year-old plurality decision (which means that a majority of our nine justices at the time could not agree on a single position) that lower courts have chosen to ignore, resulting in greater deference to public school boards and townships that ban books to “protect” children from great works of literature. See ACLU, Inc. v. Miami-Dade County Sch. Bd., 557 F.3d 1177 (11th Cir. 2009).
The 30th Anniversary of Banned Books Week runs from September 30th to October 6th, and I decided to observe it by revisiting one of the nine books at the heart of Board of Educ. v. Pico: Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel (a classic worth reading), Slaughterhouse-Five. I became acquainted with Vonnegut’s enigmatic time traveler, Billy Pilgrim, at age twelve at the urging of my father, from whom I inherited my love of books. The book was 24-years-old then, and now it is nearly two decades older (as am I).
It is fascinating to read books of a bygone era. Vonnegut’s forty-three-year-old masterpiece contains timeless themes, such as its anti-war message, but a small number of lines are less potent today and may lose their meaning for future generations. For example, after Harrison Starr says that the book about the Second World War might as well be an anti-glacier book rather than an anti-war one, the narrator replies, “What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.” Four decades later, the analogy between relentless glaciers and endless war is less relevant; glaciers have been on the retreat for years (Hemingway’s snows of Kilimanjaro have declined 80% since 1912), and yet war remains all around us.
Nevertheless, this sobering book’s significance remains intact, and I recommend it to everyone. Some people may find it difficult to follow Billy Pilgrim as he becomes stuck and unstuck in time, but it is certainly worth the journey. Yes, there is some profanity, but that’s life and far less offensive that what most kids see on television or hear on the radio these days. There is nothing in this novel that would warrant its removal from a library shelf or school curriculum, and yet there are those who continue to object to it, with a Missouri school board making headlines last year for deciding that Slaughterhouse-Five was inappropriate for high school students.
Then again, in my opinion, few books contain such obscene content as to warrant censorship. Some books are not appropriate for the very young, mostly because such young children do not have the conceptual understanding to process such content and not because we should protect them from “moral danger” or certain political or religious viewpoints. I have always believed that the best way to counter controversial speech is with more speech. Thus, the solution is to talk about why the book is wrong, not to ban it.
Many of our judges in this country do not feel this way, and they will be the ones to decide whether the actions of school boards and townships comply with the law. We tell ourselves that these courts are apolitical bodies, but that is a fiction. In the United States, judges are either elected (many state courts) or appointed and confirmed by elected government officials (federal courts). The judges behind the 11th Circuit opinion (2009) that essentially ignores the Supreme Court’s decision in Pico (as I describe in my earlier post) were appointed by one of the major political parties in the United States (to see who appointed them, see their bios: here & here), while the dissenting opinion comes from an appointee from the other political party (see bio here).
We will be electing our government officials on November 6, 2012, and the next President of the United States will appoint numerous federal appellate and district court judges — the ones who decide, often without review, the vast majority of constitutional rights cases — and likely one or more United States Supreme Court Justices. These are the judges that could hear the next censorship case, among many other cases related to issues that affect the lives of everyday people.
Your vote matters. To influence the composition of the courts: (1) register to vote by October 9th; (2) make sure you have proper ID if you live in a state that requires it; and (3) go to the polls in November.