The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 23, 2003


"Kids, books, and censorship: an author's perspective"

Award-winning author and Carlisle resident Nancy Garden was the speaker at the Carlisle School's Eighth Annual Education Forum on Saturday, May 17 in the Corey Auditorium.

In 1993, Nancy Garden's novel, Annie on My Mind (1982), was banned in a number of school districts. The story is about two high school girls who fall in love with each other. In 2001, Nancy Garden received the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award for her work defending Annie On My Mind. Today the book, though still controversial, is considered by many to be one of the most important teen books written in the past forty years. In 2003, Nancy Garden won the Margaret A. Edwards Award honoring her lifetime achievement in writing for young adults.

Excerpts from Garden's speech are below.

Award-winning author and Carlisle resident Nancy Garden (second from left) speaks with (left to right) Forum chair Amy Mestancik, Carlisle School Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson and Carlisle School Committee member David Dockterman, who introduced the speaker. Garden was the speaker at the Carlisle School's Eighth Annual Education Forum on Saturday. (Photo by Midge Eliassen)

"Much of the censorship and attempted censorship, especially to books, the Internet, and student speech itself in this country has been done in the name of protecting children from ideas they're too young to understand, or words or images that someone considers to be harmful to them. Other forms of censorship have been visited on children to control them and their classmates from expressing ideas that school authorities consider subversive or disrespectful...."

"Every year, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom publishes a list of banned and challenged books, and every year, there are those who are surprised, and those who claim that the list is unnecessary because books aren't really banned · censored · in this country. Many people believe that censorship only exists when the government prevents material from being published or distributed. But the term censorship does apply to violations of the First Amendment on a lesser scale as well · for example, in public schools and libraries on a local level. Public schools and public libraries, of course, are essentially government institutions, funded by taxes and other government monies...."

"...according to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom there are four to five actual challenges to and bannings of books in the nation's libraries to every one that gets reported. Between 1990 and 2000, the Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded a total of 6,364 challenges and bannings in the nation's libraries. Applying the four to five times rule brings the real total up to between 25,456 and 31,820 · a pretty appalling number....The greatest number of challenges in the last decade have been brought for perceived sexual explicitness, for language deemed offensive, and for age inappropriateness. Other challenges were levied because people believed books were promoting the occult or promoting Satanism, or had an occult theme. Still others were for violent content; for having a homosexual theme or for allegedly promoting homosexuality; for allegedly promoting a religious viewpoint; for nudity, racism, or sex education; or because, their challengers said, the books were anti-family.

"Almost 71% of the challenges between 1990 and 2000 were to books in schools or school libraries....It strikes me as ironic that it's at school that kids' intellectual freedom is most often compromised...."

"The fear that breeds censorship, especially book censorship, is usually fear of the unknown, fear that stems from misinformation, fear that books and movies almost automatically make people do bad things, fear that knowledge of more than a single set of ideas and standards will doom children to a horrible fate or will make them into monsters. It's a very real fear on the part of many parents, and it's a mistake to dismiss it out of hand or view it as inauthentic...."

"My major censorship saga started back in the fall of 1993. In 1982 · eleven years earlier · Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my 10th book, a young adult novel called Annie on my Mind. It's a love story about two high school girls who fall in love with each other and realize they're gay....

"In the fall of 1993, I was at a writers' conference giving a workshop in writing young adult fiction, and someone asked me if I'd had much trouble with Annie. "Why, no," I said glibly, "really very little." But then a couple of days after I got home [I got a call telling me that] a fundamentalist minister had doused a copy of the book with gasoline, dropped it into a metal bucket, and set it on fire in front of the building housing the Kansas City School Board...."

"Book burning is distasteful and frightening and an implied threat to intellectual freedom · at least to me · but is it a First Amendment violation when the books burned are the property of the burners? Fire hazard and possible intimidation aside, book burning, it seems to me, is as much a form of protected speech as, say, carrying an anti- or pro-war sign. Perhaps I should add here, also, that challenges themselves are, in a way, good. Dissent, after all, is a sign of a free society; if challenges to books and other materials weren't allowed, a vital part of the First Amendment would be dead. After all, the people who wanted to ban Annie had every right to their opinions, every right to voice them, and every right to prevent their own children from reading the book. The problem came, as it always does in these cases, when they tried to prevent other people's children from reading it. It's not the challenges themselves that are so objectionable; it's the acts of censorship that they advocate. It's vital to remembber that the First Amendment, rightly, protects all ideas, even those that you or I don't like...."

Garden gave a number of examples of censorship of various kinds, including the following:

"Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the FBI has been secretly contacting libraries as well as bookstores in many parts of the country to examine records of people they suspect of having terrorist connections. They must get search warrants to do this, but only from a court that meets in secret and without having to find probable cause, as is required for traditional search warrants. Section 215 overrides state laws protecting library records. Librarians and bookstore personnel, like other people investigated under the Patriot Act, are not allowed to disclose the existence of the search warrants, give out any information about them, or notify the people whose records are being read. And under Sections 214 and 216 of the Patriot Act, libraries can be required by court order to help monitor their patrons' internet use at the library...."

"After the tragic Littleton, Colorado school shooting, some students, even very young ones, were indisciminately and severely punished...for such actions as wearing black or talking or writing...about violence....Not long ago a 13-year-old boy was expelled from his Pennsylvania school after he threw away a list of his enemies that made no mention whatsoever of harming them...."

"Many students throughout the country exercised their free speech rights this year by protesting the Iraqi war, and most of them were allowed to do that. But at Fairfax High in Hollywood, California, students were told that if they left school to protest, they would be punished by suspension, transfer, detention or having to do community service...

"How would you explain to students who have been taught that the First Amendment embodies some of our most precious freedoms that they are not allowed to protest their government's actions?..."

"These are complicated issues; there are no easy answers. But intellectual freedom does depend on people · including kids · being permitted to express their ideas freely. No, people can't do things like yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theater when there is no fire, inciting to riot, or clearly threatening other people. But being allowed to express unpopular ideas or criticize the government's or other officials' policies are different matters entirely. Intellectual freedom also depends on the freedom of libraries, bookstores and yes, probably the Internet, to serve all the people, children as well as adults, and on their being able to try to provide free access to all ideas for all of their patrons and customers....

"In a free society, it is up to consumers to refuse to buy or otherwise support materials of which they disapprove, and it is up to parents, not the state or public institutions like libraries and schools, to try as much as possible · and I know that's not always easy · to try to be aware of, control, and otherwise deal with their own children's exposure to materials that they feel are inappropriate for them · their own children's exposure, not other people's...."

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito