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The First Amendment and the "Freedom to Read"

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, also the first article in the Bill of Rights, was ratified by Congress in 1791. Since then, interpretation of its role in the lives of U.S. citizens has been the issue of many legal battles. Is it OK to shout "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater? To complain about your boss on Facebook? To preach on the lawn of a state university campus? These are all questions that fall within the purview of the First Amendment.

Many court decisions over the years have interpreted the First Amendment to include not only the freedom of speech but also the free and open access to speech. This translates into what is commonly known as the freedom to read.

Opposing Viewpoints

Regarding access to reading material, an important distinction needs to be made between a challenge and a ban. A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the subsequent removal of those materials. A challenge doesn't always become a ban.

Within these court cases it is clear that those who make challenges against books often do so with good intentions. Challenges to remove books from schools or libraries are meant to protect others, frequently children, from uncomfortable or difficult ideas and information.

Those who argue to keep materials available in collections state that blocking access to materials based on the opinions of a minority is tantamount to censorship and in violation of their First Amendment rights. They would argue that the backbone of the First Amendment is the notion that ideas and information should be freely expressed and freely available to whomever may want them. This sharing of ideas, regardless of their popularity, is essential for a healthy democracy. Removing access to those ideas based on the opinions of a few is therefore seen as detrimental to the function of a healthy democracy.

Recent Challenges

Challenges of and restriction to books happen close to home. During the 2010 school year the Stockton School Board voted to remove* Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from the school curriculum and library. And over the summer the Republic Board of Education voted to remove* Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer from the high school's library and curriculum. Reasons by the Republic School Board for removing these books ranged from "I just don’t think it's a good book" to concerns that the "language is just really, really intense." In September, the board revisited the issue* and voted to retain the books but restrict their status so only parents can check them out.

The Springfield-Greene County Library is no stranger to book challenges. The Library welcomes feedback about the collection, which can take the form of suggestions for purchase or concerns about a particular book or library material, and takes all feedback seriously. Concerns about a book or other material are submitted via a Request for Reconsideration form that can be found on our website or picked up at any of our branch libraries.

Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week began in 1982 under the leadership of Judith F. Krug. Krug served as the Director of the American Library Association’s Office on Intellectual Freedom (OIF) and worked as a librarian in several Chicago area libraries. The OIF website explains that Banned Books Week was created in order to highlight "the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.” Libraries across the United States participate in Banned Books Week with book displays that feature frequently challenged or banned titles and with guest speakers and various programs.

The Springfield-Greene County Library has participated in Banned Books Week for many years. This year's Banned Books Week programming is made possible by a grant from the Judith F. Krug Memorial Fund. A full line-up of events can be found on the Library's website.


* Library card required for use outside the Library

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