Each day, all across the country, one of our most basic freedoms—the right to read—is in danger. In communities large and small, censorship attempts threaten to undermine our freedom to read. Without our constant support, the First Amendment freedoms that we so often take for granted—the right to read, explore ideas, and express ourselves freely—are at risk.
Hundreds of books have been either removed or challenged in schools and libraries in the United States every year. According to the American Library Association (ALA), there were at least 464 in 2012. ALA estimates that 70 to 80 percent are never reported.
This freedom, not only to choose what we read, but also to select from a full array of possibilities, is firmly rooted in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Although we enjoy an increasing quantity and availability of information and reading material, we must remain vigilant to ensure that access to this material is preserved; would-be censors who continue to threaten the freedom to read come from all quarters and all political persuasions. Even if well intentioned, censors try to limit the freedom of others to choose what they read, see, or hear.
The First Amendment guarantees that each of us has the right to express our views, including opinions about particular books. At the same time, the First Amendment also ensures that none of us has the right to control or limit another person’s ability to read or access information. Yet when individuals or groups file formal written requests demanding that libraries and schools remove specific books from the shelves, they are doing just that—attempting to restrict the rights of other individuals to access those books. The rights and protections of the First Amendment extend to children and teens as well as adults. While parents have the right—and the responsibility—to guide their own children’s reading, that right does not extend to other people’s children. Similarly each adult has the right to choose his or her own reading materials, along with the responsibility to acknowledge and respect the right of others to do the same. When we speak up to protect the right to read, we not only defend our individual right to free expression, we demonstrate tolerance and respect for opposing points of view. And when we take action to preserve our precious freedoms, we become participants in the ongoing evolution of our democratic society.
Act now to protect your right to read. Here are three ways that you can get involved:
1. Stay Informed
Be aware of what’s happening.
The best way to fight censorship is to be aware that it’s happening. When you encounter it, be prepared to speak up or let others know.
Ask the people on the front lines — librarians, teachers, and school principals — if there are any current attempts to challenge or ban books or other materials. If they have support groups or information lists, ask to join them. Legislators and public officials often introduce legislation to restrict access to books and other materials in libraries, schools, and bookstores. Let officials know that there are citizens actively opposed to demands to restrict or remove books in schools and libraries.
Attend school board and PTA meetings.
You can speak up about the importance of free speech to education in a democratic society.
As a regular participant in gatherings, you have the opportunity to learn about policies governing access to books and materials. You can witness firsthand when someone demands that a school or library remove a book or restrict access to books.
Subscribe to print and online news publications.
You can stay current on First Amendment rights and censorship issues.
The First Amendment Center<<correct link>> (firstamendmentcenter.org <<correct link>>) maintains an online First Amendment library <<correct link>> (firstamendmentcenter.org/research-articles <<correct link>>) and provides breaking news about First Amendment issues via its RSS newsfeed.
Join groups committed to preserving the right to read.
You can participate by joining these nonprofit organizations.
The Freedom to Read Foundation (ftrf.org) is the only organization in the United States whose primary goal is to protect and promote the First Amendment in libraries by participating in litigation dealing with free expression in libraries and other venues. Members receive a quarterly newsletter, The FTRF News.
The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression <<correct link>>(abffe.org <<correct link>>) promotes and protects the free exchange of ideas, particularly those contained in books, by opposing restrictions on the freedom of speech.
The National Coalition Against Censorship (ncac.org) is an alliance of fifty national nonprofit organizations, including literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor, and civil liberties groups, that work to educate both members and the public at large about the dangers of censorship and how to oppose it.
Report censorship to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
You can help raise awareness of censorship in your local community.
ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracks attempts to remove or restrict books across the country. By reporting censorship incidents, you can help to identify trends in censorship cases and document responses and solutions to censorship. All identifying information is kept strictly confidential. You can file reports online by going to ala.org/challengereporting.
Attend and participate in public hearings.
You can inform public officials that censorship won’t be tolerated in the community.
By attending hearings, you can speak out in support of free expression and the right to read freely. You can let officials know that there are citizens actively opposed to demands to restrict or remove books in schools and libraries. Such attempts seldom succeed when concerned citizens speak out against censorship.
Write letters to public officials.
You can write to public officials encouraging them to preserve the freedom to read.
Let them know that your rights and your views are entitled to the same respect as those who seek to censor books. Write to any public official that you believe can prevent the suppression of books in your community: your mayor, city council, other city officials, library board members, school board members, superintendent of schools, etc.
Send a letter or an op-ed article to local news organizations.
You can update community news outlets with information and opinion.
Make sure you let reporters and editors know that there are members of the community who oppose censorship and the official suppression of ideas. Letters to public officials, letters sent to local news outlets, and comments posted on websites and blogs are effective ways to raise awareness.
Work with community groups.
You can network with local organizations for support.
Inform professional associations, civic organizations, and religious groups about attempts to remove books from the community’s library or school. You can ask to speak to their membership about the importance of preserving First Amendment freedoms. Or ask if you can contribute an article to the group’s newsletter or website. You can speak with the group’s leaders and ask them to lend public support to efforts to protect the right to read in the community.
Form a coalition to oppose censorship in your community.
You can partner with others who support the right to read freely.
Even a small number of persons can form an effective group to oppose censorship. Such groups allow members to share responsibility for attending meetings and conducting outreach efforts. By joining together you can become a resource for the community as a whole.
Seek assistance from national groups.
You can get guidance and support from experienced organizations.
Get started by researching existing groups so that you can benefit from their expertise. Check out the national organizations for assistance, resources, and referrals whenever you or your organization addresses demands to remove books from libraries or schools.
3. Support Your Local Schools and Libraries
Join Library Friends groups and PTAs.
You can become an advocate for community education groups.
Libraries and schools rely on volunteers and advocates to accomplish their mission of educating young people. These groups also provide information and lifelong learning opportunities to adults in the community. You can contribute by participating in Friends groups, PTAs, or volunteering directly where your help will strengthen these vital institutions.
Participate in Banned Books Week.
You can promote the right to read by joining in the celebration.
Each year, libraries, schools, and bookstores across the nation celebrate the freedom to read by observing Banned Books Week. This public event celebrated each September features author visits and readings from banned books. You can show your support for the freedom to read by attending these events. Please visit ala.org/bbooks for more resources and information, or connect on Facebook (facebook.com/bannedbooksweek).