Right to write begins with right to read, panelist says

Wednesday, December 8, 1999

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Censorship begins not when books are banned, but when books aren’t recognized, taught or read, a prolific author and social critic said today.

“The right to write begins with the right to read,” said bell hooks, a professor at New York’s City College and author of 17 books.

“Censorship, to me, begins when we as professors choose what we want to teach and how we teach what we teach,” hooks said. “The very fact is that all voices are not seen as equal and are not equally heard.”

She joined several other panelists for the First Amendment Center discussion “Books on Trial: The Right to Write.”

“The pulse to censor is incessant,” said panelist Bruce Sanford, a First Amendment lawyer and author of Don’t Shoot the Messenger: How Our Growing Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us. Sanford believes that in trying to pass legislation to limit children’s access to harmful material on the Internet — like 1998′s Child Online Protection Act — Congress has “perpetrated a cruel hoax against people.”

“Congress legislating in this area is a little bit like a nearsighted Julia Child wielding a meat cleaver — somebody’s going to get hurt. In this instance, it is parents who get hurt.” Sanford said Congress has hurt parents by assuming responsibility for monitoring the information children can access.

Beyond the government, the publishing industry is a dangerous an agent of censorship, said panelist Larry L. King, author of 13 books and seven stage plays, including The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

“All (publishers) care about is selling product,” King said. “They put most of their advertising money into what they think is going to make more money, and everybody else gets the crumbs.”

Echoing King, hooks said that many books are censored before they are published.

“There’s so much censorship in terms of (publishers) thinking about ‘What will our readers want to read?’ ” hooks said. “We have to hold the publishing industry accountable for the introduction of very resilient forms of censorship … that we never hear about, that will never go to court, that will never even see the public eye because people do it behind closed doors.”

Censorship, however, can sometimes help promote books that otherwise might be overlooked, the panelists said. Author and illustrator Michael Willhoite saw a dramatic increase in sales of his children’s book Daddy’s Roommate, which was written for children with gay parents, after it became one of the 10 most censored books.

Daddy’s Roommate “is a book that censorship has simply made,” Willhoite said. “I didn’t even expect it would make any kind of waves at all. When it was published, I thought this is a book for a season.”

Sanford said that the publishing industry is misguided in not encouraging people to read books that are considered objectionable.

“They might rise you up out of your chair,” he said. “They might make you think. They might disturb you, provoke you. … At least you’ll know you’re alive.”

People should discuss controversial ideas — not silence them, hooks added. The heart of protecting free speech and our First Amendment rights is to offer different perspectives about material people find objectionable.