People For the American Way Foundation is a sponsor of Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the freedom to read and an opportunity for readers, authors, publishers, booksellers, and First Amendment advocates to call for continued vigilance against efforts to censor our words, thoughts, and opinions, in other words restrict our freedom.
Banned Books Week 2017 runs September 24—30. This year’s theme is “Our Right to Read,” which the Banned Books Week Coalition describes as “a celebration of the diverse range of ideas found in books, and our right as citizens to make our own intellectual choices.” Previous Banned Books Week themes have included challenged work written for young adults and works written by diverse authors. You can show your support by sharing Banned Books Week graphics on social media.
People For the American Way Foundation and its advocacy affiliate have a long record of resisting censorship and defending freedom of expression for artists, writers, and activists—and the freedom of students to read and learn. Among PFAW Foundation’s earliest projects was a series of ads promoting “freedom of thought, the right to have and express your own opinions.” Produced by Norman Lear and directed by the late Jonathan Demme, the ads featured recognizable names like Muhammad Ali, Carol Burnett, and Goldie Hawn, along with non-celebrities talking about their taste in music, sports and eggs.
The American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom publishes an annual list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books; it reported a 17 percent increase in book censorship complaints in 2016. The top five most challenged books of 2016, including the award-winning graphic novel “This One Summer,” have LGBTQ characters. Previous years’ most-challenged lists have included well-known titles like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
This year the ALA is hosting a “Rebel Reader Twitter Tournament” that offers participants a chance to win literary prizes by engaging in social media activities during Banned Books Week. People can also take part in ALA’s “Stand for the Banned” project by posting videos of themselves reading from banned books or talking about censorship.
Among the other sponsors of Banned Books Week are the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Coalition Against Censorship. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has produced a handbook with information on censorship challenges to comics and suggestions for sellers and readers about how to respond to challenges.
Many libraries and bookstores around the country will be hosting Banned Books Week readings and events. Here are a few specific projects you might want to check out:
This year, for the first time, the United Kingdom’s Index on Censorship has joined the coalition and is sponsoring a series of events.
Here’s more information on the impact of censorship challenges from People For the American Way Foundation’s “Book Wars” report, which was published a few years ago:
While individual challenges don’t always succeed in removing a book from a school curriculum or forcing a textbook publisher to alter its content, they can have far-reaching effects. Attacks on ethnic studies curricula or challenges to books that deal frankly with the lives and histories of marginalized communities can have divisive results beyond their original goals. For example, organizing a protest of a textbook that supposedly “promotes jihad” may not accomplish its stated goal, but might still succeed in stoking fear and resentment against Muslim Americans in that community.
Attacks on multicultural curricula in schools – like Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies classes – are joined by continuing efforts to ban books that acknowledge gay and lesbian families, teach about world religions, or deal frankly with the history of race in America. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, People For the American Way Foundation tracked challenges to books and curricula that included frank discussions of sexuality, race, and the less palatable truths of American history. In the 2000s, challenges focused also on books accused of promoting the “occult” or “undermining” Christianity, leading the Harry Potter series to top the American Library Association’s list of the most challenged books of the decade.
One common theme among many challenged books is their frank portrayals of the experiences of marginalized people. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye are unflinching explorations of being a Black woman in America. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian chronicles a Native American teenager’s experiences living in an impoverished reservation, while going to school in a wealthy nearby town. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man explores African-American identity in the mid-20th century. Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, is a landmark piece of Chicano literature. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a dystopian tale about the oppression of women. Marjane Satrapi’s renowned graphic novel Persepolis, is about a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution.
And here are some things you can do to fight censorship in your community:
- Attend school board meetings.School boards and other school decision-makers need to hear from parents, students, and community members who oppose censorship. Attend school board meetings, and stay in touch with board members and principals — even when there are no censorship challenges — to let them know that you care about fair, accurate, and inclusive schools.
- Stay informed.If a parent or activist group challenges a book in your community’s school or district, read the book and learn about its author and its history. Then share what you’ve found with fellow community members and the local media. A strong, well-informed argument is always an effective weapon against misinformation and prejudice.
- Make some noise.Start a petition among students and parents in your school or district in support of a challenged book or curriculum, and tell the local media about it. You could also consider holding a protest in favor of the challenged material. In most cases, activists challenging books represent a small fraction of a community; it sends a powerful message when the rest of the community speaks up for its values.
- Look for outside voices.While the most effective arguments against censorship are made by local students and parents, in some cases it can be helpful to bring in outside experts. If the author of a challenged book is living, consider inviting him or her to join a discussion in your community or to send a statement to school leaders. Free speech advocacy groups, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Library Association, and People For the American Way Foundation can also provide resources and advice on how to fight for free speech in schools.
- Run for office.If you don’t like the way your elected officials handle censorship challenges, consider becoming an elected official yourself! Run for school board or volunteer to serve on a school committee that handles challenges against books.