Today marks the beginning of the 28th annual Banned Books Week: a nationwide initiative to celebrate the fundamental right to read. This right stems from the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Libraries stand at the forefront of groups that have vigorously defended this freedom, which is attacked by the left and the right and everyone in between.
It may seem quaint to hear that books such as "Winnie-the-Pooh" and "Charlotte's Web" were once thrown out of libraries, but book banning isn't a thing of the past. The American Library Association reports that more than 1,000 books have been challenged since 1982. No state in the union is exempt from book challenges, which encompass concerns over sexual content, religious discrimination, cultism, racism, profanity and the promotion of homosexuality. (For a list of commonly banned books, check out the American Library Association's Web site at www.ala.org/bbooks.)
In 1974, a dispute over the use of certain textbooks in Kanawha County, W. Va., fueled numerous confrontations, involving gunfire, fire-bombings, and vandalism. Public schools shut down for a week, and the president of the board of education resigned over the textbooks' removal. "To capitulate to mob rule," he argued, "would only encourage such action in the future."
Fast-forward 35 years, where assaults on the basic freedom to read have become more challenging and intense under the impact of new technologies, litigation threats and concerns about national and personal security.
Yale University Press currently is embroiled in a controversy over its decision to omit 12 Danish cartoons and other images of the Prophet Muhammad in a forthcoming book by Jytte Klausen, entitled "The Cartoons That Shook the World." In 2005, a Danish newspaper published caricatures depicting Muhammad that sparked violence around the world, resulting in the deaths of more than 200 people and injuries to hundreds more. Yale's decision to remove the images from a scholarly work about those cartoons is based on recommendations from outside experts who argued that republishing the cartoons would risk inciting renewed violence.
Yale is in a tough spot. It has agreed to publish this book; the author is criticizing the Press for removing the images; the American Association of University Professors has condemned the decision, characterizing it as tantamount to acceding to "anticipated demands" by terrorists. The director of Yale Press, John Donatich, told The New York Times that when he decided whether to include the images or have "blood on my hands, there was no question."
Last month, the Obama administration offered a similar argument in submitting a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking that photos of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan not be made public, on the grounds that their release would inflame anti-American opinion and put our troops at greater risk. The Supreme Court will likely decide next month whether to hear the appeal.
Are the two cases comparable? I would say "yes" - and "no." Both are motivated by a desire to avoid potential violence. Both involve suppression of evidence. But in the case of Yale, the decision was made to publish an academic monograph that centers on the cartoon controversy. It would seem that the treatise would be enhanced by having the images at hand for review within the context of that discussion. (They are posted on the Web.) I wonder, too, why the decision to exclude the cartoons and other images of Muhammad wasn't resolved much earlier in the editorial process. Bottom line, it remains to be determined whether the pen is mightier than the sword or the other way around.
Cornell University Library's response to requests to censor or ban materials it acquires is almost always "no." Notable exceptions include when an item has been donated by mistake or by someone unauthorized to give it away. I am happy to report that Winnie and Charlotte, as well as many of the banned books on ALA's list, are available from Cornell University Library. We intend to keep it that way.