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Don't Judge a Banned Book by Its Coverage

Francis J. Beckwith


In general, censorship is a bad idea. It is an idea that is often ridiculed but rarely defended. For example, recently in Northern California, because of the large amount of hard core pornography that can be easily acessed on the internet, a group of concerned parents asked their local public libraries to regulate entrance into cyberspace for minors . These parents were called "censors" and laughed at by both the local media and intelligentsia. But their case is not as flawed as one may suppose.

Consider the American Library Association's (ALA) "Banned Book Week," which has been celebrated every September for many years at schools and libraries across the country Although the ALA's motivation is noble, its approach plays down the moral and social complexities of censorship. When I was a faculty member at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), I taught a course called "Contemporary Moral Issues." In that course we usually discussed the issue of censorship. In order to provoke my students to understand why the ALA's approach is woefully simplistic, I made the following challenge to them:

The university is celebrating "Banned Book Week" by putting in glass cases books that have been banned or that people have tried to ban throughout American history, such as Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Tropic of Cancer. Under each book is an index card on which a brief history of the banning or attempted banning of the book and the reason or reasons why people did not want the book sold and/or permitted in their library. Notice that all the books in the cases are classics that no intelligent person would want banned. The message is clear: people who favor censorship are idiots. But I have a feeling that the library would have a much more difficult time with its absolutism against censorship if one of you did the following. In fact, I challenge you to do this, if you have the gets.

Go to an adult bookstore and purchase the raunchiest hardcore pornographic magazine you can find, maybe with a catchy title. Then take the magazine to the local public library and try to donate it. My guess is that the library staff will look at you as if you were crazy, and then politely say, "No, thank you." Now take that same magazine to the university library and ask to see the person in charge of the banned book cases. Present this person with the magazine and tell her that she should put it in the glass case because it is now a banned book. I have no doubt, like her colleagues at the public library, she will politely say, "No, thank you." At that point you should demand your own glass case for books banned from the "Banned Book Week" case. Then you should leave before she calls security.

The point of this is to show that it is not obvious that all censorship is unjustified. In fact, it is not obvious any form of censorship impedes the production of great works, a favorite argument of the First Amendment absolutists. For example, as political theorist Francis Canavan points out, when Fiorella La Guardia was mayor of New York City he refused to renew the licenses of strip clubs and burlesque shows. And yet, it was in the La Guardia years that the greatest Broadway musicals were produced--Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I, My Fair Lady, etc. The history of literature bears this out. Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Goethe, Plato, Aristotle, and Dostoyevsky did not live in liberal democracies in which there was unlimited freedom of expression. Yet, in our current regime, nothing approaches the wisdom and depth of the works of these authors.

I am not saying that censorship is always a good thing. In fact, I would say that it is generally bad, for many tyrannical regimes have used censorhip to silence important and thoughtful works. My point is that the case against all censorship, as put forth by the ALA and those in Northern California, is as simplistic, reactionary, and thoughtless as the censorship employed by authoritarian governments.


About the Author

Francis J. Beckwith, Ph.D. is associate professor of philosophy, culture, and law, and W. Howard Hoffman Scholar, Trinity Graduate School and Trinity Law School, as well as senior research fellow, Nevada Policy Research Institute. His latest books are (with Gregory Koukl) Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Baker), See the Gods Fall: Four Rivals To Christianity (The College Press) and The Abortion Controversy 25 Years After Roe v. Wade: A Reader, 2nd ed. (Wadsworth). For more information, visit Dr. Beckwith's Web Site.

Resources by Francis J. Beckwith Available from Stand to Reason

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