To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the great classics of the last century, a beloved book that is studied in high schools across the United States-and yet this book beloved by many is also hated by some. Each year, the American Library Association holds its Banned Books Week to make people aware of the challenges libraries across the nation face, trying to keep controversial books on their shelves (Doyle 2). The ALA ranks To Kill a Mockingbird fourth on its list of “The Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2009,” on accounts of “offensive language, racism, and [being] unsuited to age group” (State News Service). People who find elements of To Kill a Mockingbird offensive often write to libraries requesting that the book be restricted or altogether removed from shelves. Incidents like these, with Harper Lee’s book and with many others, have led to the creation of Banned Books Week.
Is it constitutional to ban books on the grounds that they contain material some people find offensive? According to the First Amendment of our Constitution, it is not. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” (Noble). The Constitution makes it clear that book-banning will not be tolerated, but why did our founding fathers create this law? They created this law because the censorship of books is detrimental to society. When our founding fathers wrote the Constitution, they wanted to make sure and lay a strong foundation for our newborn nation to grow upon. The right to read
the books we choose is foundational to our democracy, and indeed, to our freedom. Why, then, do so many Americans still try to ban books they find offensive?
The answer is simple: the United States is a melting pot not only of different people, but of different opinions, making it impossible for a a writer to write a good book without someone disagreeing with the book’s themes. When people disagree with a book, many times they act to change the book or ban it from libraries altogether. These people believe they are doing the other a favor by removing objectionable content from the reach of the public. However, they are actually doing everyone-including themselves-a disservice.
For example, look at the case of Raymond English, who faced objections from multiple groups over the content of a history book he was attempting to write. Each group had a different complaint about the way their interests were represented in the book. Feminists disliked the portrayal of their movement, Filipinos disliked the portrayal of the annexation of the Philippines, politicians disliked the portrayal of the American economy, Zionists disliked the portrayal of Arab population statistics in the highly fought-over Palestine area during the early 1900s, and different church denominations disliked the portrayal of the Reformation (Noble 271-272). This series of stumbling blocks from multiple groups with different views stood in the way of the main purpose of the book, to provide a volume chronicling the history of the United States.
The problem we face is that America is too diverse, with too many opinions for everyone to agree with each other; our country cannot afford to censor every scrap of text that offends the sensibilities of one particular person or group, or we will have no books and no freedom of speech left. Without freedom of speech, the same groups that act to ban books would be unable to advance their causes; Feminists would not be able to advance womens’ rights, Filipinos would
not be able to campaign for their independence, and churches would not be able to express their views on the Reformation. Without freedom of speech, society is stagnant. Historical research shows a strong relationship between the abundance of books in a society and a society’s health; in fact, it could be said that books are the building blocks of society (Knuth 3). Books communicate ideas, and by reading about these ideas, we develop our culture.
Take, for example, the impact of reading on slaves in the South prior to the Civil War.
“The majority [of scholars] still agree that the basic result of literacy has been and is one of liberation” (Cornelius 2). Literacy leads to reading, reading leads to learning, and learning leads to freedom. For this reason, many slaveholders did not allow their slaves to learn how to read, fearing that learned slaves would revolt (Cornelius 12). Slaves who were taught to read and write often became leaders in the slave communities, giving organization to their culture and creating their own small society within a society (Cornelius 85). By reading the Bible, slaves demonstrated equal intelligence with their masters and gained a sense of identity as a distinct group of Christians; more importantly, they discovered in the scriptures that they were created equal and ought to be free. (Cornelius 3). The ideas that they found in the Bible gave them a yearning to be free.
Of course, this was only possible because educated slaves had access to such books with such ideas, that would reveal to them their enslaved state and inspire in them a desire to be free. What if they had had no books to read? Would they have discovered these ideas anyway, or would they have remained ignorant of the condition in which they lived? If books inspire us to think for ourselves and to seek freedom, is it possible that without them, we would lose that freedom?
The answer is yes. We need only look at history to see what a loss of important books does to societies. World leaders realize that for the people, literacy leads to freedom; to this end, many totalitarian regimes have sought to regulate their countries’ libraries. These governments attack books because they know books contain ideas, and by controlling ideas, they can control people (Knuth 3). The Nazis, in their efforts to create a pure race, took away the peoples’ books before they ever acted to kill the people themselves (Knuth 87). Communists in China followed a similar pattern.
When the Communist Party took control of China, they stomped out dissent by removing from the country’s libraries any literature that did not agree with them (Knuth 165). As with Germany, scholars who thought for themselves and did not go along with the social changes enacted by the government were imprisoned (Knuth 180). These books were replaced with Communist-supporting texts and literature that glorified the new government (Knuth 176). Mao Tse-Tung, the leader of this new government, was a writer who used his books-such as the Little Red Book that became his bible-to enthrall the minds of the Chinese citizens (Knuth 166-169). “Should not those [creative] impulses be utterly destroyed?” Mao said of the countless books confiscated and writers imprisoned at his command. “I think they should; indeed they must be utterly destroyed, and while they are being destroyed, new things can be built up” (Knuth 178). Without books, the people became willing slaves to a destructive regime.
Even though we are privileged to live in a democracy, with a Constitution that gives us the power to voice our ideas, it is all too easy to lose that freedom if we give in to the impulse to
censor books. Even a person fiercely opposed to book-banning may find on the list of “Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2009” some book containing content he finds
objectionable. In such an instance, he might find himself reconsidering his views, thinking that
perhaps there are some basely vulgar novels out there that deserve to be banned. But consider that every time we ban one book, we give the opportunity for someone else to ban another book less deserving of the negative stigma. When we silence a voice that offends us, we open a window through which someone else whom we offend may silence us. In a nation of diverse opinions, sometimes we must bear offense in order to protect our right to speak our minds. The right to read, express our ideas, and disagree with the ideas of others is foundational to the freedom we have in our country. We cannot give away our freedom by giving in to the impulse to censor books, lest we become a nation as destructive as the Germany of World War II. Our freedom is far more precious than our feelings; it is the heart and soul of our nation. It is vital. It is cherished. It is our freedom to believe in God, without fear of persecution, the same freedom upon which our country was founded. We cannot destroy the books that are part of our heritage, such as Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book accused of racism that, in reality, is a passionate argument against racism. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but sing for us….that’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” Miss Maudie says to Scout Finch in Mockingbird (Sparknotes). Lee’s book is itself a mockingbird, one that we would be wrong to kill. When we allow such a book to be banned, we allow the destruction of something inherently good, and worse, we allow the destruction of our own freedom.
Therefore, we should hold on to our freedom; we should hold on to our books.