At the Harvard Law School library’s latest exhibit, “Challenging Our Right to Read,” controversial books, formerly resigned to the shadows, are once again on display — right beside the objections raised against them.
At the Harvard Law School library’s latest exhibit, “Challenging Our Right to Read,” controversial books, formerly resigned to the shadows, are once again on display — right beside the objections raised against them. By Ike J. Park

Do We Have the Right To Read?

“Do we, as a society, have an ethical obligation to create safe spaces and boundaries for particular groups of people?” asks Jocelyn Kennedy, one of the curators of the Harvard Law School library exhibit, “Challenging Our Right to Read.”
By Jem K. Williams

Let’s talk about sex — or at least its literary depiction. From Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” to George Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” many books haven’t shied away from the topic. But as book bans have surged over the past few years, many people may have found these books pulled from the shelves of their local library for “obscene” content.

For centuries, the law has struggled to define obscenity, with most operational definitions focusing squarely on sex and sexuality. Under this umbrella, books dealing in these topics have often found themselves being “challenged.” At the Harvard Law School library’s latest exhibit, “Challenging Our Right to Read,” those books, formerly resigned to the shadows, are once again on display — right beside the objections raised against them.

The exhibit traces the history of censorship in the U.S. back to 1637, when Thomas Morton’s “New English Canaan” became the country’s first banned book due to its critique of Puritanism. The exhibit then moves into the display of a text by Black abolitionist David Walker, which was prohibited by Southern antebellum state governments at the time of its production. But the centerpiece of the exhibit’s historical side is an exploration of early American censorship through the history of the 1873 Comstock Act and its namesake, Anthony Comstock.

Comstock, a fervent “anti-vice and anti-obscenity” activist, started his censorious campaign with the postal service. Once his act was passed, Comstock reigned over the Post Office, enforcing penalties for the distribution of any information pertaining to sex, birth control, or abortion. His crusade against obscenity was motivated by the belief that exposure to certain information could break down fundamental moral values, particularly in children.

Comstock was not a fringe figure. His organization, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, was supported by wealthy donors in New York City, and the Comstock Act passed with no dissent. According to the exhibit, subsequent legislation largely “removed the teeth from Comstock’s Law,” but mailing “obscene” material is still technically illegal.

Continuing past the 1800s, the focus of the display cases shifts from government-sponsored censorship to private censorship, centering books that have been removed from library and classroom shelves in recent years.

Touching for a moment on the 1982 landmark case in the history of book removals, one of the display cases contains a caption summarizing Island Trees School District v. Pico. The case found that book bans in schools violate students’ First Amendment rights when they are conducted in a “narrowly partisan or political manner.” But this decision was far from the end of the story.

Censorship is harder to define when it occurs within private institutions, which have different guidelines and imperatives when it comes to choosing what does and doesn’t get distributed through them. That’s where challenges come into the picture.

Challenges against books are often levied in schools or public libraries. Someone, often a concerned parent, comes in and expresses discomfort at a certain book — or sometimes multiple books — on the shelves. Libraries have a system in place for this very scenario. They ask the person to fill out paperwork, formally challenging the book, and the challenge is evaluated by the library’s staff to determine whether the book will be pulled from circulation.

Not all challenges result in a ban. The forum can, at times, even open up room for a conversation between concerned parents and libraries wherein the parent comes to an understanding and rescinds their challenge before formally filing the paperwork.

“The public has a right to come in. It’s a public library. They have a right, in some respects, to come in and say ‘I’m concerned about this book,’” says Lesliediana Jones, one of the curators for “Challenging Our Right to Read.” “So you have to have an organized system to address that.”

Jones tells me all libraries have a “collection development policy.” It’s impossible for any individual library to house all the books in the world, so they have to make choices about what they have on their shelves. Libraries often take the communities they are located in into consideration during this process — which can lead to literary omissions, not out of malice, but out of practicality.

“Let’s say it was an elementary school. An elementary school is not going to have certain books that are at the level of high school or above, or on certain topics,” Jones says. “And that speaks to the professionalism of the librarian, and the staff.”

It’s about having a set of guidelines to inform decisions about book removals rather than an “ad-hoc” method that might be more prone to manipulation.

“Are there going to be books that they’re just going to pull simply because a couple of members of the community have said they’re concerned about those books being there? Yes, that’s going to happen. Might you call that censorship? Yes, you could call it that,” Jones says. “But it’s a reality that we know is going to happen. That’s why we encourage libraries to have policies in place so that you aren’t doing things as a knee jerk reaction for fear of retaliation.”

But there’s a wide gap between community-conscious curation and government-enforced censorship. According to Jones, the removal of books from libraries does not rise to the level of a “free speech issue.”

However, that doesn’t mean book bans are harmless.

“That’s not a First Amendment issue because the First Amendment only protects you from government censorship,” says Jocelyn Kennedy, the exhibit’s other curator.

Kennedy says of libraries, “They’re private actors, so they should be able to do whatever they want to do. However, I think there’s an argument that they have a cultural and societal obligation to behave in certain ways.”

It raises an interesting question for Kennedy. “Do we, as a society, have an ethical obligation to create safe spaces and boundaries for particular groups of people?” she asks. She compares this responsibility with the rating systems found in comic books, music, and movies designed to keep explicit material out of the hands of children. (Kennedy notes this model of parent-led content regulation might not even be sustainable in the age of the internet.)

Not all forms of censorship censor the material in totality. A book being unavailable at one library doesn’t mean it’s not available everywhere.

There are even times when censorship may be deemed necessary. National security information is often redacted from letters that soldiers send home. There’s self-censorship, whereby an individual makes a choice about the kind of information they want to engage with and what they say. Even social media platforms have debated whether forms of content moderation should be considered censorship.

But regardless of the question of societal obligation, it is evident that these efforts at moderation and curation are coming, oftentimes, from private actors with concerns about the wellbeing of the community. Should this private impetus change the way we view the issue?

The American Library Association, which has been tracking book bans since 1982, reports that 2023 saw a surge in book bans compared to the previous year (during which they also reported “record” numbers in comparison to 2021). A total of 4,240 books were targeted by censorship attempts.

Kennedy witnessed a book ban herself at a young age. One Friday when she was in the 10th grade, an ambitious English teacher of hers distributed the book “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker to the class.

Kennedy was enamored instantly with the text, finishing it over the weekend. But upon returning to school, the teacher promptly collected all the books. Due to a parent’s complaint, she removed “The Color Purple” from the class’ syllabus.

“The Color Purple” has been challenged a significant number of times throughout history. One year after winning the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, its inclusion in syllabi was challenged at the Board of Education in Oakland, California for its sexually explicit content and blunt depiction of race relations.

“Part of human nature is to suppress and censor the things that we don’t agree with and the things that make us uncomfortable,” Kennedy says.

This encounter with book challenges sparked her interest in the First Amendment and free expression. She went on to study these topics in law school and eventually became a librarian — a position she describes as being “at the frontline of putting information into people’s hands.” Kennedy saw the importance of free access to banned books and decided to participate in Banned Books Weeks, a celebration that serves as part of a national awareness campaign, at the libraries where she has worked.

But restrictions on the type of media available to children aren’t limited to book bans. There are age ratings on films and explicit content stickers on albums. What makes these restrictions acceptable, while book banning is deemed dangerous?

According to Jones, explicit content labels on books are exactly what some people want. There was even a bill proposed in Texas, House Bill 900, that would have mandated just that. And a new law proposed in West Virginia is attempting to make it a criminally punishable offense for a librarian to check out explicit content to a minor.

“There are people who call themselves First Amendment auditors who are going into public libraries and looking around to see if libraries are violating people’s First Amendment rights,” Kennedy explains. She says these “auditors” will walk around the library and try to catch patrons utilizing the facilities to view explicit content, such as pornography.

“They’re really trying to catch libraries in nefarious positions,” Kennedy says. “A lot of my colleagues are afraid. They’re afraid, and they’re tired, because we have to be hyper vigilant.”

The legislative push to criminalize the accessibility of explicit content to minors becomes even more treacherous in light of how malleable the definition of obscenity remains. The lack of terminological clarity has been used to further the same political ends that the decision in Island Trees School District v. Pico tried to prevent. This is evident in the thematic patterns of frequently targeted books.

“There are 13 books what they call the top 10 challenged book list — but there’s actually 13 because some of them have tied. But of those, seven of them have LGBTQ plus content and themes,” Jones says, referring to the list from 2022.

Books bans are taking on a distinctly political tone. According to Jones, individuals, backed by organizations, have at times entered libraries and challenged hundreds of books in a coordinated attempt to systematically undermine books with politically-charged themes. And it’s easier than ever for groups to coordinate and spread petitions for book bans through social media.

“I think 700 of the book challenges last year were made by 11 people across the country,” Kennedy says.

“These book challenges and book bans have helped fuel political careers,” Jones tells me.

She adds that it’s not just books with LGBTQ+ content that are frequently challenged. Books on critical race theory are also disproportionately likely to end up on the list of challenged books, too — all under the guise of “protecting children.”

But denying people of marginalized identities access to literature that reflects their experience changes the scope of the issue.

“What’s happening right now is very much a civil rights issue, and a civil liberties issue, more than a censorship issue,” says Kennedy.

— Associate Magazine Editor Jem K. Williams can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jemkwilliams.

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