Throughout American history, the progress of society has depended on freedom of expression, whether speaking out for an idea or opposing it. Book bans go against this fundamental tenet of American democracy. I respectfully disagree with members of the Victoria County Court of Commissioners, who recently voted unanimously to pressure the Victoria Public Library to remove books that a community group has deemed objectionable. .
While I understand that the reasons for banning the books seem intuitively reasonable to committee members, it is nevertheless an inappropriate strategy and one to which I hope they will give in. The banning of books by any government official, government entity, or public library is contrary to the principles on which this country was founded and cannot be tolerated under the First Amendment.
Book banning is not a new phenomenon but rather has surfaced like a bad boil on the complexion of our society for hundreds of years. There has never been a group in history that has been praised for banning books. Generally, groups want to ban books that they find unacceptable for reasons that seem clear to them. History has shown that objections are often motivated by ideological or political motives. Examples include today’s communist countries that ban books related to political thought, to former totalitarian regimes like the Nazis and fascists of the last century, to groups that not only burned books they didn’t did not love but also burn the heretics who represented them. All of these groups argued that they “were on the right side of this issue”. I do not believe or affirm that our commissioners are like these other groups, they are not. But if any of them think there is a “benefit” to banning books or that it is their duty to ban books, then I ask them to think about the historical setting of book banners who preceded them.
In the 1970s, author Judy Blume wrote a series of books for young adults that dealt with the changes tween girls go through during puberty. Groups rose up and proclaimed these obscene and inappropriate books, and sought to have them banned. Today, we read them without flinching. They were good books then and they still are.
I encourage the interested reader to visit the website of the American Library Association read their statement on banning books (ala.org/advocacy/statement-regarding-censorship). Among the interesting facts on the ALA website is a list of the 10 most disputed books, every year for the past 20 years. Some of the books have been on the list for decades, like “Catcher in the Rye,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and “Of Mice and Men.” Among the books that have become very popular despite being on the list are the Harry Potter series and the Captain Underpants series.
The books currently targeted for censorship focus on LBGTQ issues, which can be complex and make many people uncomfortable. As a parent, I can understand those who want to make sure their children don’t have unlimited access to books that go against their family values. No one disputes the right of parents to exercise control over what their own children read. But the responsibility of supervising their child’s reading material lies with the parent. It has not been and should not be delegated to the library, nor to the government, nor applied to any other child who might visit the same library.
I’ve spent my entire adult life living and working on college campuses. I have a distinct bias when it comes to issues of free speech and books. The correct response to concerns about speech is more speech. Speech removal never achieves the desired result.
The free market of ideas is essential to learning, but it is also a difficult and rowdy place – if all ideas are present, there will be a clash and individuals will be put in a position to choose sides. The members of the commission have chosen a side. I argue here that this is the wrong side. But I also want to stress that the best way forward involves an open discussion of the divergent and diverse views on this issue. This country has always found consensus through debate and conversation. I hope to convince by relying on data and evidence, and by using the principles that we all share.
In conclusion, I must make it clear that I share my views and opinions as a longtime educator and as a private citizen, and not in my role as President of the University of Houston-Victoria. As President, however, it is important to state that UHV stands with our universities in the UH system and all state universities against the book ban. Banning books is contrary to the marketplace of ideas which relies on the examination, discussion and debate of ideas, even those that are complex, controversial or uncomfortable. I look forward, with some trepidation, to what I am sure will be a lively discussion on these issues.