On Tuesday, October 10, Schuler Books hosted a forum as part of their Banned Books Week” activities. The panel discussion included Christopher Finan, author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America. Finan spoke first and was followed by Marcia Warner with the Grand Rapids Public Library, Mary Bejan with the ACLU, and Ander Monson a professor at Grand Valley State University (GVSU).
Finan said he began writing his book three years ago after growing concerns with the USA Patriot Act. He said he thought it was important to tell people not to despair, “that we will not lose our civil liberties and that if anything our civil liberties have grown over the past 100 years.” Finan then gave examples of how during the time of the Abolitionists, the early Suffragettes, and the early Labor movement there was serious backlash when there wasn’t much support for free speech. It wasn’t until WWI that free speech fights brought forth free speech rights, in part because of the crackdown on rights. Finan gave the example of anti-war advocates and Eugene Debs http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Heroes/EugeneDebsSocialism.html , who was jailed for criticizing the war. It was at this time that a man by the name of Roger Baldwin, who was impressed by the courage of anti-war voices and the Wobblies, became involved in fighting for free speech rights. Within a few years, Baldwin and others formed the American Civil Liberties Union.
Finan also said that libraries and librarians have a history of dealing with literature that was “questionable.” For example, some librarians would hide books that had sexual content in the hopes that no one who sought to ban them would find them. Literary battles finally lead to the Supreme Court making some decisions in favor of free speech, but the McCarthy Era quickly followed that. The author said that today “We are indebted to thousands of librarians who have stood up against some of the provision in the USA Patriot Act.”
At this point WGVU radio talk show host Shelly Irwin asked a question of the panel. She cited recent news coverage about the Grand Rapids Public Schools wanting to limit the text of some books that dealt with sexual content. Marcia Warner with the Grand Rapids Public Library said that the best thing to do is to inform the parents and let them make a decision. Mary Bejan with the ACLU said this issue is not just about the courts, but depends on community reaction and organizing to defend free speech. She thought that it was interesting that people are still trying to get books banned from public libraries and school libraries and gives the example of the Harry Potter book series and other children’s books. Ander Monson of GVSU said “as a writer, banning books is always an issue of concern, particularly when recent studies show that reading is down amongst children.” Finan said that banning books is really important and it is interesting that people are still shocked that there are efforts to ban books. He said that there are 500-600 challenges to banning books every year, but that most are not successful. He said that one of the books that are always targeted is titled And Tango Makes Three; a children’s book about two male penguins who raise a penguin egg.
Marcia Warner said that the Grand Rapids Public Library has literature setup by age appropriate categories, but they do not prohibit anyone from checking out anything. The burden of responsibility lies with the parents, she said. Finan said school curriculum is generally being determined by education professionals, “when there is a challenge to that judgment, we don’t disagree with parents rights on the material when it comes to their kids, but we don’t agree with parents who want to make that decision for all children.
Another question that was raised had to do with censorship of other media. Finan said that the medium that is most attacked is video games. At least half of a dozen states have passed laws restricting access based on violence and sex in video games, but the federal government has struck down all six. He said there have also been attempts to censor the Internet, even by Congress, but the Supreme Court has struck that down. There are persistent efforts to censor media, according to Finan. He cited the example of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, which happened 50 years ago. “Because of the current FCC regulations on obscenities some broadcasters have decided to not have it read on air.”
Someone from the audience asked how will censorship effect how people view future generations. Finan said, “We don’t know our own stories, stories of people who have fought to protect speech. We need to learn and tell those stories.” He gave the recent example from 2004 of librarians in Washington state who were threatened by the FBI with arrest when they refused to give the names of people who had checked out a book about Osama bin Laden.
Another question was asked about the comparison of the McCarthy era to the current political climate. Finan said that we are doing pretty well at fighting back. Civil libertarians were up against harsher consequences then than now. He said they really went after people for their affiliations and for even attending an event or function that was critical of the government. This was particularly the case for artists, writers, filmmakers and actors. He said that people were blacklisted and targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Ander Moson was asked if textbooks at the college level are censored. He said there are pressures, but that he personally has never experienced any kind of censorship. Mary Bejan said that there has been growing pressure on content and courses taught at the university level and cited Lynne Cheney’s group the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), which has been targeting university professors. Bejan also stated that many anti-war activists, Arab and Muslim groups have been targeted and that the ACLU has been active in defending those free speech rights, particularly of anti-war groups.
By way of concluding Finan said that some recent victories have been gained against the Patriot Act, but there are many battles to still be fought. Other panelists encouraged the audience to think critically, to speak out, and join groups that are working to defend free speech.