Over these many months this column has shed light on some very real current events around the world in which the freedom to read has been challenged by individuals, or groups, armed with torches lit by the flames of ignorance.
This week offers updates on some of those stories.
A few weeks ago, a manager of a Borders bookstore was arrested for selling Allah, Liberty, and Love, a book that she did not know was banned by a religious court in her country.
Borders operations in Malaysia has called on the Home Ministry and the Federal Territory Islamic Religious Department (Jawi) to clearly establish and delineate the decisions to ban books in the country.
The Kuala Lumpur High Court this past Sunday granted Borders leave for a judicial review proceeding against Jawi’s raid, search, and seizure of Irshad Manji’s controversial books at the bookstore on May 23.
Malaysia’s Minister in charge of Islamic affairs, Jamil Khir Baharom, meanwhile, has defended the raid, saying, “The country has laws; we have rules and regulations. We will answer in court.”
His deputy said parties involved should have known the book was banned, since her department had already advised the Home Ministry that it considers the book “un-Islamic.”
Deputy Minister, Masitah Ibrahim, argued, “We did our part, if Borders wants to sue, we will see them in court. She should be responsible for distributing something that’s against Islam.”
COO, Yau Su Peng, in a statement released by the company, said, “The issue here is not about Borders wanting to challenge the order to ban the book made on May 29. The fundamental issue here is about Jawi’s action against a Borders employee to the extent of charging her in court even before a ban had been officially announced.”
The company also says that she is being “grossly mistreated,” Yau explained, “This current event has really broken her down. There are a lot of concerns of the safety of her family, pressures being put on them from around, she kept on saying to me “I understand why I have to go through this, but my family, my friends, not all of them will understand what this is all about, to them I am already guilty.”
The works of Shakespeare and novels by John Grisham have been banned in Texas prisons before, where a book-review policy has approved only 80,000 out of more than 92,000 books sent to its inmates, according to database records.
A 5th Circuit Texas state judge this week has upheld a recent book ban by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), stating that corrections facilities did not violate the First Amendment by banning certain books that describe rape, child abuse, and race relations in the prison system.
Prison Legal News, a non-profit inmate rights advocacy group, filed suit over five books recently banned by the TDCJ.
The books challenged by Prison Legal News are “Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis,” “Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson,” “Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System,” “Prison Masculinities” and “The Perpetual Prison Machine: How America Profits from Crime.”
“Women Behind Bars,” which was initially banned in 2008 because it discusses the history of a female inmate who was sexually abused by her uncle, has since been approved after the book’s author and Prison Legal News protested.
A federal judge previously dismissed claims because no inmates requested the books within the specific period, but a New Orleans-based federal appeals court affirmed Friday that Prison Legal News has standing, even with regard to books sent to inmates unsolicited.
Though this particular case involved books sent through the mail, such rules often affect the content of prison libraries as well, such as Connecticut’s 2010 decision to remove violent content, as reported by American Libraries.
“Government interference with one’s attempt to sell or distribute written material unquestionably satisfies Article III’s injury-in-fact requirement,” Judge Edith Brown Clement wrote.
The interest of Prison Legal News “in distributing books to TDCJ’s inmates – which is precisely the type of interest at the core of First Amendment protections – is more than sufficient to support its standing to sue,” she added.
The court rejected the department’s argument that prisoners don’t have a right to receive unsolicited mail. “TDCJ’s argument would carve away a large chunk of the First Amendment’s protections even without so much as an assertion that those protections are in conflict with legitimate penological interests,” the decision reads.
“The general right to receive unsolicited communications free from government interference is not only well-established, it is also quite valuable, a fact that is largely apparent in the prison context. Prisoners have an obvious interest in receiving unsolicited mail from family attempting to reconcile, ministries reaching out to convicts, and those attempting to offer legal assistance, because prisoners would often be unable to initiate such contact themselves,” the 32-page decision states.
According to a report from the Prison Book Program, similar restrictions on legal and medical content, and even all fiction, exist in prisons in Mississippi, Virginia, and elsewhere. The report also cites a prison in South Carolina in which all books are banned except the Bible.
The Erie School Board on Thursday upheld its decision to ban a book and a nationally-recognized program on cultural diversity and tolerance: “Ready, Set, Respect!” The lesson plan is endorsed by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network.
In May, the School Board voted 5-2 to ban “The Family Book,” by Todd Parr, and accompanying materials because a few parents objected to the line “some families have two moms or two dads.”
The ban gained national attention this month after an online petition called for the school board to reverse its decision.
A mixed group of more than a 100 people on both sides of the issue packed the Erie Middle School cafeteria last Thursday.
Board member Charles Brown defended the ban and the board’s choice to use other materials for the tolerance and diversity curriculum.
“We have nothing but the students’ best interest in our mind; but we live in a democracy and a vote is a vote. This board voted,” Brown said.
Brown, along with some fellow board members, suggested the community use the school board election in April if they were unsatisfied with the current board.
Sean Leeds, a 2010 Erie High School graduate who began the online petition, said, “It’s crucial to instill tolerance and diversity in our community’s children during a young age. The only agenda here is to promote tolerance in our children. Exposing children to the reality that is this incredibly diverse world that we live in is not a narrow view; excluding groups from children by trying to protect them from reality is.”
Mindy Jepson, a parent of three children at Erie Elementary, said she supports the ban because she believes it’s what’s best for her children.
“I don’t feel it’s the school’s job to teach family diversity, gender expressions, or any other lifestyles. Parents know their children best and how best to approach these situations. I think ‘Ready, Set, Respect!’ crosses the line when it starts redefining family, males and females.”
Board member Thomas Pons questioned holding a referendum on the issue, suggesting that voters hit the polls in April.
“Do we want to be the town that puts that on there and the stigma that’s going to go with it?” Pons asked.
“The final decision, the final word, will be in the hands of the community. This is not the teacher’s school. This is not the administrator’s school. This is the community’s school,” board member Mike Heun said.
“This matter is probably not over with until April 2013,” Brown added.
The banning of books is an attempt to stop free flow of thoughts, ideas, and information by arguing that these ideas “create confusion, disrupt public order, or are against a religion or way of life.”
It creates a society that is afraid of knowledge. A frightened mind is a closed mind, incapable of seeing the light of a different perspective.
History shows that what was once deemed heretical is now accepted fact. Well, that is unless you still believe the world is flat.
The purpose of education is not the assimilation of bland, tasteless facts, but learning to think critically and ethically with that information. The spread of censorship shows a failure of society to create individuals who can think for themselves and contribute to the public good.
Yes, Mr. Brown, this is a democratic society, and as such, those who are responsible for public administration must always be open to criticism; as citizens, we have the right to voice our opinions on those policies that affect our daily lives.
Not only do these policies state that individuals can no longer take care of or think for themselves, but it shows that the very people we entrust with education have grossly failed at their jobs.
It also puts an unneeded burden on an already-frail economy.
Think about it. Someone has to police the schools, the libraries, the bookstores. Someone has to monitor the public airways.
They have to pay “public servants” to be the thought police, using public tax money that is better spent on roads, infrastructure, social programs, and, yes, better education.
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://www.deepforestproductions.com/BBARK.html