Banned Books Week: defending our freedom to read

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

“I cannot live without books.” — Thomas Jefferson.

Of all Jefferson’s inspiring and thought-provoking quotes, this one is among my favorites. As the First Amendment Center’s librarian, I have a special affinity for books, and as someone academically trained as a historian, I have an appreciation for the Founding Fathers and for the important words they left behind.

Banned Books Week — Sept. 24 through Oct. 1 — is an annual recognition by librarians and book-minded people that the First Amendment should never be taken for granted. I believe the freedoms embraced by the Founding Fathers in the 45 words of the First Amendment also speak to an implied freedom to read, yet history shows us that the struggle to maintain that freedom has never been easy.

Jefferson believed that censorship only served to draw attention to books that might otherwise be ignored or forgotten. In 1814, Jefferson wrote to his Philadelphia bookseller, Nicolas G. Dufief, concerning Jefferson’s purchase of a book by Regnault de Bécourt, La Création du Monde. American authorities claimed that de Bécourt’s book contained blasphemous material, and had accused the author of selling his book to Jefferson. In coming to de Bécourt’s defense Jefferson eloquently stated, “I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offence against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate.”

Throughout our nation’s history, words that have questioned the authority of our government and religious institutions have faced public scrutiny. Even works by our most well-known Founding Fathers have been censored out of fear of rebellion and societal decay.

Thomas Paine is considered to be one of the most important and influential thinkers of his generation, yet his works, The Rights of Man (1791) and The Age of Reason (published in three parts in 1794, 1795 and 1807), were targets of hostility and censorship from the government and from the religious establishment for their perceived seditious and blasphemous content. Benjamin Franklin’s book, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791), was censored from its first publication for its bawdy language and references to his sexual dalliances.

Books are sources of inspiration, they challenge our thoughts, and they inform our beliefs. Yet, even in the “Age of Enlightenment,” the Founding Fathers were not immune to the overzealous desire to control what was read by the public — for example, President John Adams’ ill-advised Sedition Act of 1798, which banned newspaper editorials critical of the government.

James Madison, considered by many scholars as the “Father of the Constitution” once said, “A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

In a free society, books — whether they are in print or in digital form — provide us with the very knowledge that Madison spoke of, and that Jefferson forcefully defended. Banned Books Week reminds us how easily our First Amendment freedoms can be taken from us if we allow ignorance to inform our thoughts and actions.

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