Banned Books Awareness: Crossing the Free Speech Line


Spend enough time online and you’ll discover that trolls lurk outside of fairy tales and Lower Michigan. There comes a time, though, when some of these internet trolls don’t just cross the line of appropriateness or maturity, they jump it waving a middle finger at the world.

For anyone who has followed this column knows, a person’s personal thoughts or ideas rarely deserve to be censored; but there are times when, perhaps hypocritically, it is the right thing to do for public safety.

That’s exactly what happened to Chuck Johnson and it resulted in Twitter permanently suspending his account last week.

For those unaware of one of the internet’s most disreputable trolls, this guy is so far right that he can barely grasp the edge of the spectrum- or reality for that matter. This is the guy who, in the wake of the recent Amtrak tragedy, took to Twitter to claim that homosexuality caused the derailment.

johnson copyThe social media site suspended him for using his account to ask his followers to donate funds so he could, and I quote, “take out” DeRay McKesson in response to his involvement in the protests in Baltimore and Ferguson.

Quick to the punch, they also suspended several new accounts- such as @citizentrolling and @freechucknow, which he tried to create to circumvent the decision. Johnson, in turn, called up his lawyers and threatened Twitter with legal action, claiming censorship.

Let’s clarify something about the oft-quoted clause of the First Amendment. It prohibits the government from prosecuting or otherwise punishing someone for their words- through fines and/or imprisonment. It says nothing about private entities limiting the material available through their forums. The Supreme Court has also ruled that the censorship of books or other material in schools is permissible so long as the decision was not made on the basis of political reasoning or personal beliefs.

“Twitter doesn’t seem to have a problem with people using their service to coordinate riots,” Johnson complained on his blog, which has since been downed by an apparent DDoS attack. “But they do have a problem with the kind of journalism I do.”

Does this sound like journalism?


Basically, he is saying that Twitter is differentiating between types of acceptable speech: things you can say in public and things you can’t.

They are, but not in the way he thinks they are.

To be fair, there are times when these public gatherings start out calmly, but rationale and intent are often overridden by humanity’s base instincts and emotions. That being said, the First Amendment still gives citizens the right to peacefully assemble, it doesn’t give them the right to incite bodily harm.

It is safe to say that we all accept as an axiom that it is unlawful to shout “fire” unprovoked in a crowd due to the risk of harm to those panicked.

It is also accepted that thinking harm to someone is one thing, the moral debate of which aside; to actually call out for it is another. Just ask any Pantera fan how that can turn deadly. What Johnson has done, blatantly, is commit the crime of conspiracy to commit murder; so maybe instead of his lawyers building a case against Twitter, they should be preparing a criminal defense.

It is for this reason that I have had to put a disclaimer, a visitor code of conduct, on all of my social websites. Dialogue is fine; derogatory names and threats are not.

Even Reddit, the internet’s champion of absolute free speech, modified its rules to clearly ban harassment on May 14.

phoenixA similar incident, also from this past week, was an anti-Islam rally outside of a Phoenix mosque that openly encouraged the 250+ participants to bring guns as a “precautionary measure”, but some brought two or three guns; others wore military outfits. That isn’t precaution. That isn’t peaceful assembly. That’s preparing for a battle.

The protest came after two Phoenix residents carrying assault rifles were killed by police outside a Muhammed cartoon-drawing contest in suburban Dallas earlier this month. Unlike the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo headquarters, which were done as social satire- however tasteless it may have been-, the Dallas event was held for no other reason than to provoke an armed response from those offended, thus bringing innocent citizens in harm’s way.

Sure, those who organized it have a right to protest in the name of their religion, but the members of that mosque also have their right to practice their religion without the threat of harm or death.

Jon Ritzheimer, the organizer of the protest, called it a “patriotic sign of resistance against the tyranny of Islam in America. I want fellow patriots standing right here next to me. This isn’t about me. Everybody’s been thinking it, I’m just saying it.”

Again, thinking and doing are two different sides of the same coin.

The incident wasn’t without some positive outcomes, though.

Jason Leger, a Phoenix resident wearing one of the profanity-laced shirts, accepted an invitation to join the evening prayer inside the mosque, and the experience changed him.

“It was something I’ve never seen before. I took my shoes off. I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people. We all got along,” Leger said. “They made me feel welcome, you know. I just think everybody’s points are getting misconstrued, saying things out of emotion, saying things they don’t believe.”

Ya Ali Yoseph, also from Phoenix, said, “Of course it’s offensive,” of the cartoon drawing that took place. “We have 124,000 prophets in Islam. Prophet Muhammed was the last prophet. We don’t draw pictures of our prophets. Jesus was a prophet. We don’t draw pictures of Jesus. In the Koran, there’s a quote that says, Allah made you different groups, different tribes, different races, so you can go and learn from each other, so we can come closer to each other. This is a test, to see how you treat people of different color, different ethnicity.”

If only others could see through the rhetoric and arrogance.

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

Sources: Chicago Tribune, Business Insider, Washington Post
© 2015 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Petition Against Oklahoma HB 1380


Oklahoma lawmakers have decided to limit our educational choices. HB 1380 would eliminate funding for Advance Placement (AP) U.S. History. Politicians in the state say they want to ban AP U.S. History because they don’t agree with the content (the true facts and events of history are not fitting to a narrow, revisionist vision of history and maintaining a politically-motivated agenda).
“The bill, authored by Oklahoma Rep. Dan Fisher, designates a total of 58 documents that “shall form the base level of academic content for all United States History courses offered in the schools in the state.”
Many of the texts are uncontroversial and currently covered by the Advanced Placement U.S. History course, such as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and Gettysburg Address; but the bill also has an ideological and religious side. The bill will REQUIRE all students to attend a class that focuses on the 10 Commandments, 3 speeches by President Ronald Reagan, and a speech by George W. Bush. NO speeches or documents from any Democratic President since Lyndon Johnson will be permitted.
As a supporter of literacy and the freedom to read, Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge supports and signs this petition.

Banned Books Awareness: “The Working Poor”


thPQ4FUC4XBanned Books Week, which coincides with the new school year each autumn, is usually a time when scholars, book lovers, and legal analysts discuss how censorship impacts society and education. One would expect those in charge of our schools to hold all aspects of education- especially books- most dear.

As it turns out, at least one Superintendent has a different view.

Dawson Orr, of the Highland Park ISD in Texas, made the autonomous decision to ignore district policy and remove seven books from classroom shelves. In doing so, he set off a firestorm that reached the national level.

The books were reinstated and the district’s policies on book selection for classroom use and how challenges to those books are handled is under review.

Move forward four months and The Working Poor, a non-fiction work about poverty by David Skipler, is threatened yet again in the district on accusations that it is “sexually explicit” and “has no place in a high school English course”. The course is Advanced Placement English III and is a college-level course for juniors.

The book tells the true stories of people in the United States living just above the federal poverty line. The English department’s review of the book for the district listed an acknowledgement that the book contained some material that could be considered controversial, but deemed the work an asset “to build students’ capacity for empathy and knowledge of an issue facing millions in America and millions more across the world.”

The parent who filed the complaint stated that “The Working Poor is not a great work of literature or an example of rich writing we want our students to emulate. One must ask, is this the best piece of literature our students can read to learn to write?”

She argued that if English teachers want to teach global poverty and economic equality, alternate books such as Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, We the Living, by Ayn Rand, and America the Beautiful, by Ben Carson, were more appropriate.


The disagreement being put forth is that material of a social or economic nature that speaks of economic inequality is unfit for a college-level English course; but material by Ayn Rand, whom is often associated with conservative policies and often quoted by the wealthiest members of American political and economic organizations is.

Carson is a regular on Fox News and other conservative media programs. His book has received no serious critical praise; in fact the most notable discussion about it has been the charge that passages were plagiarized.

So much for the complainant’s “quality literature” argument.

It should be noted that the Highland Park ISD is one of the wealthiest in Texas. Both sides in the debate acknowledge the perpetuated stereotypes.

The author of the contested book stated that he is unaware of it being challenged in any other district. Following the initial suspension in September, he added an afterward about the issue in his forthcoming book, Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword.

Shipler defends that there is nothing “prurient, obscene or sexually explicit in the book” and the anecdotes by women quoted in the book mentioning issues of sexual abuse and abortion only did so because they felt the trauma was relevant to their issues. He included them not only because they were valid topics for the subject matter, but also to describes challenges that cut across socioeconomic lines and teach readers about harsh realities.

The dispute has resulted in the formation of two opposing groups in the community: Speak Up for Standards, which objects to some mature content in high school books, and HP Kids Read, which opposes book suspensions and censorship.

Shipler mentions that he has conducted many discussions in schools across the country and has a granddaughter attending high school. He has found that not only do most children that age understand such material, they are fully capable of making informed and intelligent decisions and opinions related to that material.

Take, for example, Highland Park senior Gaby Gear. She said that, “It didn’t seem like a big deal when we read it. Just kind of the realities of life.”

Another senior, who read the book last year, said that those realities had an impact on her.

“To me, it kind of opened my eyes,” says Maddie Kelly. “I couldn’t imagine going through that.”

The proposed changes to the district’s policy on controversial material will be voted on later this month or in February. The new proposals include:

  • Staff “place principle above personal opinion and reason above prejudice” when selecting instructional material. It ensures that books “are evaluated as a whole and selected for their strengths rather than rejected for their weaknesses” and are not “masked, clipped, or altered in any manner inconsistent with the author’s intent.” The removal of controversial materials from the library will be prohibited.
  • The principal or a designee will be required to review guidelines with teachers each year about how to select instructional material and handle objections.
  • Eliminate an approved book list for the high school. Teachers currently pick books from the list to teach in class or assign for outside reading. Instead, the district would create a new annual approval process. (Highland Park High School Principal, Walter Kelly, said the approved book list opens the district to criticism over books that haven’t been used for years. It also limits teachers to about 200 approved titles.)
  • Changes to how the high school uses permission slips. Permission slips will go home to parents the first week of the school year along with a course overview. The early notice would allow teachers more time to plan alternative assignments if a parent or student “opts out.”
  • Puts safeguards in place to avoid interruption of classroom lessons and a continuous cycle of challenges. It prohibits a formal challenge to the same material or an appeal to reinstate a removed material until two calendar years have passed.
  • Parents can only formally challenge material that’s in use or scheduled for use. If a committee deems a book inappropriate, the superintendent can delay removal of the book “if he or she determines the immediate removal would be disruptive to the instructional process.”
  • Creates a timeline for the annual review of books that teachers plan to use during the upcoming school year. It allows time for parents to review that list and raise objections.


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

Sources: Dallas News, WJBC, CNN
© 2015 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

This article has been updated since its date of publication. It was amended with the background information on Ben Carson and his book.

Banned Books Awareness: “Harriet the Spy”


harrietthespy_200-9efd97ced1fc296511563193e9938dceab17ffe3-s2-c85In 1960s America there weren’t many mysteries solved by powerful female detectives. The choice was between Nancy Drew (who was often overshadowed by the Hardy Boys) and Harriet M. Welsch, better known as Harriet the Spy. It was hard not to like Harriet or to laugh at the whimsical quips she would jot down in her iconic notebook like: “MY MOTHER IS ALWAYS SAYING PINKY WHITEHEAD’S WHOLE PROBLEM IS HIS MOTHER. DOES HIS MOTHER HATE HIM? IF I HAD HIM I’D HATE HIM.” Looking back, those stories were read with childhood fascination and an attention span that rarely roamed beyond the immediate entertainment value; but as an adult it becomes clearer how these two seemingly similar characters were actually illustrating a shifting view in culture in regards to the role of women and in children and children’s literature as a whole. Nancy was the polite and respectful girl next door, while Harriet was impetuous and couldn’t care less about keeping up a lady’s appearance. Nancy would solve crimes to bring closure to the mystery and the perpetrators to justice, Harriet did so for no other reason than the thrill and delinquent pleasure of doing what wasn’t supposed to be done by “good little girls”. Harriet wrote about her adventures and the people and places in her Manhattan setting with a derisiveness that was negative and arrogant yet so refreshingly hilarious that you are forced to laugh and nod your head in agreement. Not surprisingly, her against-the-grain attitude has had some people in a frenzy since her first adventure was published in 1964 and led to her being one of the most-banned and challenged literary characters of the last half century. The book debuted on a 1964 list of “The Year’s Best Juveniles” in The New York Times Book Review. One reviewer in 1965 called the book “a brilliantly written, unsparing realistic story, a superb portrait of an extraordinary child” and another found that it “captures the feelings, thoughts and situations of a modern city child with remarkable clarity and dimension”. It won a Sequoyah Book Award in 1967 and, in 2005, ex-CIA officer Lindsay Moran cited the series of books as an inspiration for her career. Anita Silvey, author of 100 Best Books for Children, stated that Harriet was controversial in part because she was a flawed character. There were critics drawn to her charm, but other critics hated the book. Some schools even banned it. Harriet saw what she saw and spoke her mind. She even threw temper tantrums and had to visit a psychiatrist. Such subversive (yet completely relatable behavior) was not to be tolerated and certainly not endorsed. Along with Are You There God?, Blubber, and Where the Sidewalk Ends, the book was challenged at a 1983 school board meeting in Xenia, Ohio. Opponents viewed it as encouraging children to be disrespectful, teaching children to “lie, spy, talk back, and curse.” Kathleen Horning, the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, reflects on the “tomboy story”. “There was a whole genre called the ‘tomboy story’ where a girl rebels in that way, but at the end everything is wonderful because she really is a girl and she gets very feminine,” remembers Horning. She was a tomboy who didn’t want to reform. Later on, she realized she was a lesbian. What does that have to do with Harriet the Spy? “A lot”, says Horning. The book’s author, Louise Fitzhugh, was also gay, and although Harriet’s sexuality is never referenced or hinted at in any way in the book, her clothes and bravado sent a message to some kids who felt different and didn’t know why. Many lesbians, from the 1960s to today, have publically identified with Harriet due to her being an “outsider” dressing like a boy. Opponents claim that Fitzhugh was secretly pushing a gay agenda through use of characters like the “Boy with the Purple Socks,” arguing that he was gay for no other reason than the color purple being associated with the gay community. Harriet’s friend, Sport, is also considered counterculture from 1960s gender norms due to the fact that he cooks, cleans, and carries out other household tasks due to his absentee mother and stay-at-home father. Horning added that, “If you were growing up in the sixties when you really didn’t have any other people like you; Harriet was it. What the book told us is that we could be ourselves and survive.” It’s easy to see why some adults would be concerned with her rebellious nature, but when they make claims of seditious commentary based solely on the color of someone’s socks it becomes crystal clear that some people have far too much time on their hands. It’s a book, after all, but talk about reading between the lines. If it weren’t for Harriet, the strong female leads of the 1990s and new millennium simply wouldn’t have existed. Buffy, for example, was the most popular and most comparable character to directly result from Harriet and was as beloved by girls in the ‘90s as Harriet was by their parents. Therein lies a perfect bridge between the generations and source of open and honest discourse. That’s what good literature does- entertain first and encourage discussion later. It’s a lesson some just can’t seem to comprehend.   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 Sources: Wikipedia, American Library Association, NPR, Daily Mail, Christian Science Monitor © 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “Naked Lunch”


200px-NakedLunch1steditionNaked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs, was originally published in 1959 and is included in Time magazine’s “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005”. Burroughs stated that the chapters, or “routines” as he calls them- are a collection of loosely-connected vignettes and intended to be read in any order which follow the adventures of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases from the U.S. to Mexico and other places. The stories come from Burroughs’ own experiences and his addiction to drugs (heroin, morphine, and while in Tangier, “Majoun”- a strong marijuana confection-, as well as a German opiate called Eukodol, of which he wrote about frequently).

It was originally published as The Naked Lunch in Paris in July 1959 by Olympia Press, but due to U.S. obscenity laws a complete American edition did not follow until 1962 and was titled Naked Lunch. This edition was noticeably different from the Olympia Press edition because it was based on an earlier 1958 manuscript in Allen Ginsberg’s possession. The article “the” added to the title was never proposed by Burroughs and added by the editors of Olympia Press.

Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. “The title means exactly what it states: naked lunch- a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

Naked Lunch is Burroughs’ signature work and considered today one of the pillars of American literary history despite being quite controversial with subjects such as drug use and homosexuality.

Sections of the original manuscript were published in the Spring 1958 edition of Robert Creeley’s Black Mountain Review and the Spring 1958 edition of the University of Chicago’s student-run publication The Chicago Review. The student edition was poorly received and caused the university’s administration to discuss the future censorship of the Winter 1959 edition of the Review, resulting in the resignation of all but one of the editors. When the editor, Paul Carroll, published BIG TABLE Magazine (Issue No. 1, Spring 1959) alongside former Chicago Review editor Irving Rosenthal, he was found guilty of sending obscene material through the U.S. mail for including “Ten Episodes from Naked Lunch”, a piece of writing the Judicial Officer for the United States Postal Service deemed “undisciplined prose, far more akin to the early work of experimental adolescents than to anything of literary merit” and initially judged it as non-mailable under the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 1461.

The book was banned in Boston and Los Angeles in 1962 and several European publishers were harassed.

The controversy even resulted in an infamous 1965 obscenity trial taking issue with its inclusion of child murder and acts of pedophilia, but that decision was reversed in 1966 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Appeals Court found the book did not violate obscenity statutes and ruled it to have some social value. The hearing included testimony in support of the work by Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer.

For a further- and thoroughly-interesting read- here is a link to a partial transcript from the trial involving testimony by Ginsberg and noted author Norman Mailer. Here’s a snippet:

Q: When you use the words, “absolutely fascinating,” and so on, do you mean also, it has importance to you as a writer and other writers? Are you expressing notion of its importance?

Mailer: It has enormous importance to me as writer.

As for its social value, that is derived from the social discourse the work prompts on various subjects- specifically the death penalty. In Burroughs’ “Deposition: A Testimony Concerning A Sickness”, “The Blue Movies” which appear in the routine “A.J.’s Annual Party”, is considered “a tract against capital punishment.”

Naked Lunch was also banned in Australia from 1960-1973 and labeled as “hard-core pornography” by Customs after an imported copy was seized at Port Adelaide in February 1960.

Chairman Kenneth Binn’s report on ‘Naked Lunch’, 3 October 1963

In September 1963 the Literature Censorship Board received an application from Clem Christesen, founder of the literary and cultural affairs journal Meanjin, to import the novel under Regulation 4A of the Customs Act, which allowed prohibited literary books to be placed on restricted circulation. The Board didn’t agree with the Customs Department’s decision to ban Naked Lunch as pornographic recommended that Christesen’s request be approved. However, the censors unanimously agreed to retain the ban on the general sale of the book. Chairman Kenneth Binns concluded that “there is no need to note any particularly objectionable scene or passage for the book is so full of them and the general writing so extremely coarse that one need only consider the general character and tone.”

By July 1973, Naked Lunch was one of the last literary works to remain on Australia’s prohibited list. John Allen wrote to Customs Minister Don Chipp in 1972: “(sic) Being well aware that book censorship has to some extent been liberalised during your present term of office, I am most perplexed that Burroughs’ work should still be unavailable here.”

The Board agreed and removed the ban as well as on two other titles by Burroughs. What’s disturbing is the reasoning behind the decision. It wasn’t logic or an acknowledgment that censorship in any form is wrong. The official reason to lift the ban was because “none of them [are] likely to be popular reading, [and] had already been on the list for some time”.

The full 44 page customs report from 1973 can be viewed on the National Archives of Australia’s website.

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

Sources: Wikipedia, American Library Association, University of Melbourne, National Archives of Australia
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “Their Eyes Were Watching God”


Written in 1937 by Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” tells the story of Janie Crawford, a 16-year-old whose grandmother decides to marry her off to a well-respected man in the community.

Fellow censored author, Alice Walker, had this to say about the book: “There is no book more important to me than this one.”

Walker was an exception, though; as the novel’s negative public reaction came mostly from black critics and essayists. Interestingly, the positive reviews came from the white mainstream press.

The poor reception resulted from Hurston’s rejection of Racial Uplift literature- an ideology that educated blacks are responsible for the welfare of the majority of the race-, which was a response to the denial of African-American civil and political rights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, however, it has come to be regarded as a pivotal work in both African-American and women’s literature. TIME magazine has included the novel in its 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.

In 1927, long before writing her novel, Hurston traveled the South to collect folk songs and tales through an anthropological research fellowship and the setting of the all-black Eatonville is based on the real, all-black town of the same name in which Hurston grew up. The town’s weekly announced in 1889, “Colored People of the United States: Solve the great race problem by securing a home in Eatonville, Florida, a Negro city governed by Negroes.”

Since its publication, there has been objection to the language in the novel. These objections haven’t been about profanity but rather a criticism against characters speaking in a phonetic dialect, which is taken by some to be a mocking of how English is spoken among the black community.

Hurston’s rejection to the Racial Uplift efforts was that it presented African Americans in a way that would accommodate the cultural standards of the white majority and she asserted that her writing was distinct from other works of the Harlem Renaissance- which she described as the “sobbing school of Negrohood” that portrayed the lives of black people as constantly miserable, subjugated, and poor. Instead, Hurston celebrated the rural, southern communities as she saw them and especially refused to censor women’s sexuality, using innuendo to embrace the physical length of Janie’s various romances.

Add to that a story dealing with rape, inter-racial relationships, murder (even if it was in self-defense), and forced marriage it illustrates how it would be considered controversial from the start, but these subjects are just as emotionally charged in modern times: in 1997, a parent complained of language and sexual explicitness to the Stonewall Jackson High School in Brentsville, Virginia. After debate it was retained in their advanced reading list.

Janie’s story is one of self-identity and control of one’s own fate. Nearly 80 years after being published, its underlying theme of a journey toward self-realization still shoots right to the heart of readers of all ages and backgrounds. Humans, who are walking, running, and, sometimes, blindly stumbling along life’s path toward a common goal of personal fulfillment.

The power and importance of this universal struggle is summed up in a passage toward the end of the book, when Janie’s home is about to be destroyed by a hurricane:

“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
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

Sources: Wikipedia, American Library Association
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Celebrating Freedom: Banned Books Week 2014


I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the power of Banned Books Week than to share something wonderful and deeply touching.

In the last several months leading up to this year’s Banned Books Week I have been humbled and honored to read and share comments and letters I have received from people all over the world touched and inspired by the work of Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge. Some of them have been words of gratitude and some have included pictures of banned book displays- such as my most recent column about a California bookstore.

In January I shared an email I received from a woman dealing with a censorship effort at her former high school of Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye and several other titles. You can read about it in my article, A Multitude of Drops. Tonight I received an update to that effort and knew immediately that I had to share it.

“I’m not sure I ever updated you on the progress of my campaign with my former high school. I’ve been to your website numerous times since and returned today figuring you’d have something awesome posted about Banned Books Week and I was right! Reading your newest post just reminded me the power we have to speak up for books. My former school did not ban THE BLUEST EYE by Toni Morrison and other titles have remained in the library as well. I posted a few months ago about book banning and the power of books on my blog and mentioned some of the amazing things you had to say as well. But this being Banned Books Week, I thought I would speak about it again, as you encouraged me to do so many months ago. If you’d like you can check out the post on my blog written under my pen name here: Kayla King Books: Beware the Book

I just wanted to thank you again for your wonderful website and the resource it offers other readers and even people who don’t understand the power of books. At the end of the day, I suppose it’s nice to know there are people like you willing to stand up for something that simply shouldn’t happen. Books are too important to turn a blind eye to this issue. So thank you (one last time) for making people see how important stories and words are to the world.”



Imagine what can be accomplished and what kind of world we could build if everyone had the willingness to act instead of mutter “Well, I just (insert excuse here)…”

Whether it is censorship, general injustice, or whatever issue you hold dear, this underscores in a huge way just how powerful and meaningful a single voice can be. Let these stories of courageous people inspire you to stand up for truth and freedom. I am proud of each of these people. I welcome and applaud their efforts to  stand against ignorance, fear, and intolerance.

Total darkness can not exist amid a single flicker of light. Set the world ablaze with light!

Lighting a Fire One Match at a Time


September marks a return to regular classes here in the United States. With the cultural focus on all things scholastic, it is also the time of year when our freedom to read is celebrated by the America Library Association’s Banned Books Week, which will be September 21-27, 2014.

Libraries, bookstores, and classrooms around the country create displays and hold events during this week to highlight classic and contemporary literature that has been challenged or outright banned here and elsewhere around the world.

It warms my heart to see the many wonderful displays and makes me happy as a reader and as a lover of the written word in all of its forms.

As a professional and part of the literary community, I am honored, flattered, and humbled when my work and my words inspire others.

Since Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge began in 2011 I have received emails and messages from around the world. Many are gratitudes for the articles I have written, some are examples of how students and teachers have been influenced by the cause. I have even seen many instances where the articles themselves have been used in formal classroom assignments from grade school to universities.

I have also been pleased to receive images of banned book displays proudly showcasing the rich tapestry of literature that this world has to offer. It is icing on the cake to also find that these displays also either include or prominently feature the articles and works from this column.

For example, this year brings a message from Sandra Drescher, from the Inkopelli bookstore in Tehachapi, California. She writes:

“I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your website.  It has been invaluable for me while I’ve been doing research for my store’s Banned Books promotion (I’ve credited you and referred customers to your site, of course).  I have also found the site to be interesting personally, and imagine I’ll be returning to it often.  Thanks for being here!”

Here are images of the display that she sent to me.

Sandra, I was so happy to hear your kind words and gladly share them with other lovers of the written word. Thank you for being another flame in the torch of freedom that pushes back the darkness of ignorance and intolerance.

Banned Books Awareness: Singapore’s Culture War


Singapore’s National Library Board has been busy as of late- stopping citizens from reading. Books and comics have been on their hit list because they contain same-sex issues in their content.

The organization last week withdrew from libraries the books and Tango Makes Three, which has been covered previously, and The White Swan Express because of the inclusion of LGBT characters. The action prompted strong disapproval worldwide from outraged people, including an open letter and a petition, calling for the books to be put back.

Gay sex is illegal in Singapore, where a recent gay rally drew a huge backlash in a rare unification of Christian and Islamic groups offended by the rally’s message of tolerance and equality.

In a statement on the NLB’s Facebook page, they defended their position with the argument that it takes “a pro-family and cautious approach in identifying titles for our young visitors”, and announced plans to pulp the books despite the opposition.

Singapore’s government took a fainthearted stand on the controversy by saying that while it will retain the law to reflect (read “appease”) mainstream society’s beliefs, it will not be “actively enforced”.

A Forbes contributor, Ruchika Tulshyan, who grew up in the country, criticized the decision.  “Singapore has long upheld religious tolerance and racial harmony as a core tenet of the country, but to pretend a section of society doesn’t exist reeks of intolerance to me,” she said.

The removal of the books has brought attention to some of the more repressive policies in place in the region. According to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, the treatment of LGBT people in Asia includes electro-shock treatment as “aversion therapy”, threats of rape to “make you straight”, police kidnapping, family violence, and media harassment.

Now they’ve set their eyes on the classic Archie comic book character because a recent issue featured a same-sex marriage.

Archie: The Married Life Book Three was removed from store and library racks following a complaint by another national organization, Singapore’s Media Development Authority, which claims that it violates content guidelines.

The ban on Archie actually happened earlier this year, but it only became known after the backlash over last week’s incident.

The controversy resulted in a “read in” of the books in the national library’s atrium and three authors resigned as judges from Singapore’s top literary prize in protest.

It also adds fuel to the media fire over the longtime Archie comic strip character, which began in 1941, because next week in heroic fashion Archie Andrews, himself, will die. The United States publication, Life with Archie, will show him taking a bullet for a friend- an openly gay veteran-turned-senator, Kevin Keller, campaigning for gun control- and dying from the wound.

Since its beginning in 2010, Life with Archie has become one of the most unique books to grace the graphic novel industry, with classic characters that address current issues in an intelligent yet manageable way.

“It isn’t meant to be a sob story,” Archie Comics publisher, and co-chief executive officer, Jon Goldwater, said.

“Actually it’s inspirational,” he continued, “because Archie does what you would want Archie to do. He would do that for anybody.”

“Archie taking the bullet really is a metaphor for acceptance,” Goldwater said, adding that the assailant did not agree with Keller’s personal life or political stance.

Jono Jarrett, a founder of New York-based Geeks OUT, an organization that supports gays who enjoy comics, said Archie’s death was surprising.

“I was impressed by the boldness in the storytelling.” Jarrett said.

“Maybe what Archie Comics is saying is that in order to get the world you need, sometimes you have to sacrifice something of the world you have,” Jarrett added. “Archie Andrews is a very iconic all-American hero. To have him literally take a bullet for the ideas of diversity and equality in a comic book is a very powerful statement.”

Whether you take the position that these literary turning points and political statements are marketing stunts or marketing genius, one thing is certain- comics aren’t for kids anymore.

Actually, they haven’t been for a while now, but some people just can’t seem to let go of their idealized yearnings for a yesterday that never was.

These issues have always been there and they’ve always been talked about. The only difference between the literature of 70 years ago and that of today is that the subjects are no longer hidden between the lines with innuendo and code words.

It also takes a certain level of mature comprehension to appreciate the history of literary characters while also adapting them to the multicultural world of the 21st century and shifting societal paradigms. Thor is now a woman; Spiderman is a multiracial teenager; Wonder Woman wears pants; and Archie has left behind the after school activities of sock hops and malt shoppes.

These seemingly shocking changes to beloved characters reflect the truth that the adult world is anything but black and white, cookie-cutter, or easy to explain and our youth will be better prepared for the world and how to deal with complex issues by exposing themselves to these subjects in clever and entertaining ways.

The Life with Archie series is a spin-off that centers on adult interpretations of Riverdale. The provocative issue will be followed by one showing how his friends cope with his death a year later.

Indeed, Archie has also come a long way from the days when his biggest problem was choosing Betty or Veronica.


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

Sources: BBC News, Forbes, Newsmax, Wikipedia, Reuters
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “Tropic of Cancer”


Henry Miller is one of the most important literary figures in American history, but most people don’t even know his name. His was a true underdog story: a creative and challenging author who influenced such literary and pop culture icons as Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Phillip Roth, Paul Theroux, Erica Jong, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles; but today, 34 years after his death, he remains a marginalized and largely forgotten figure in the footnotes of literature- all because his work was banned from the moment it saw the printed page.

Tropic of Cancer has been described as “notorious for its candid sexuality” and noted as responsible for the “free speech that we now take for granted in literature.”

Anaïs Nin helped to edit the book and Obelisk Press published it with financial backing from Nin, herself, in 1934 in Paris, France. The book’s jacket was wrapped with a warning that read, “NOT TO BE IMPORTED INTO THE UNITED STATES OR GREAT BRITAIN.” Even in liberal Paris, bookstores sold the novel under the counter; but as word spread, copies were bought by American tourists and smuggled home disguised under dust jackets from other books.

The government of the United States made it national policy to ban Tropic of Cancer from being sold or imported into the country arguing, “[it] dealt too explicitly with his sexual adventures and challenged models of sexual morality.” To push their agenda, the government went on to ban all of Miller’s works from entering the United States, regardless of its content or subject.

Set in Paris, France during the late 1920s and early 1930s, Tropic of Cancer is written in the first person and follows Miller’s life and struggle as a writer. Combining autobiography and fiction, some chapters follow a narrative and refer to Miller’s actual friends, colleagues, and workplaces; others are written as stream-of-consciousness reflections that are occasionally epiphanic.

Miller gave the following explanation of why the book’s title was Tropic of Cancer: “[It was] because, to me, cancer symbolizes the disease of civilization, the endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically, to start completely over from scratch.”

The long, twisted road of censorship in the decades to follow is quite sordid.

Upon publication in France and the subsequent banning by the United States Customs Service, Frances Steloff sold copies of the novel at her Gotham Book Mart that were smuggled from Paris during the 1930s, leading to several lawsuits.

A copyright-infringing edition published in New York City in 1940 by “Medusa” (Jacob Brussel) included a last page that claimed its place of publication to be Mexico. Brussel was ultimately sentenced to three years in prison for it.

In 1950, Ernest Besig, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco, attempted to import copies of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Customs detained the novels and Besig sued the government. Before the case went to trial, Besig requested a motion to admit 19 depositions from literary critics testifying to the “literary value of the novels and to Miller’s stature as a serious writer”.The motion was denied by Judge Louis A. Goodman and the case went to trial with Goodman presiding. Goodman declared both novels obscene and Besig appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit of Appeals, where they were once again declared “obscene” in a unanimous decision in Besig v. United States.

Miller, himself, mailed copies of the book to prominent American literary figures hoping for reviews and word of mouth. One of those was to an American friend that intercepted by a Customs official and ended up on the desk of Huntington Cairns, a Baltimore attorney who served as a legal advisor to the U.S. Treasury Department. Cairns, an erudite who counted among his friends H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, read the book and, with some reluctance, banned it. Cairns recognized the literary merit of Tropic of Cancer, but was certain that under prevailing standards of decency, it could not be admitted.

When it was finally published in the U.S. in 1961, by Grove Press, it led to infamous obscenity trials that tested American laws on pornography. Over 60 obscenity lawsuits in over 21 states were brought against booksellers. The opinions of courts varied; for example, in his dissent from the majority holding that the book was not obscene, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno wrote that Cancer is “not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.”

Both national and local authorities attempted to stop its sale. In the fall of 1961, Chicago police would routinely intimidate bookstores found to sell the book, arresting several workers. Grove Press, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argued that it was illegal for officials to interfere with the sale of the novel and spent more than $100,000 fighting these charges nationwide.

Publisher Barney Rosset hired lawyer Charles Rembar to help lead the “effort to assist every bookseller prosecuted, regardless of whether there was a legal obligation to do so”.Rembar successfully argued two appeals cases, in Massachusetts and New Jersey, although the book continued to be judged obscene in other states.

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the book was not obscene and it was widely- and finally- regarded as an important masterpiece of 20th-century literature. In Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein, the case Jacobellis v. Ohio (which was decided the same day) was cited and given as reason for overruling state court rulings.

Miller enjoyed no sense of fulfillment from the ruling because he knew that American readers were consuming his books for their sensationalistic elements and missing the liberating message of deliverance from hypocrisy and shame that lay behind them. In a 1972 interview with Digby Diehl published in the Los Angeles Times Miller declared, “More and more I’ve grown disgusted with my readers. I revealed everything about myself, and I find that they’re interested in this sensational life. But I was trying to give them more than that.”

True to that theme, it exists as an immersive reflection on the human condition. As a struggling writer, Miller describes his experience living among a community of bohemians in Paris, where he deals with hunger, homelessness, squalor, loneliness, and despair over his separation from his wife.

Many passages also explicitly describe his sexual encounters. In 1978, literary scholar Donald Gutierrez argued that the sexual comedy in the book was “undeniably low… [but with] a stronger visceral appeal than high comedy”. In fact, the semi-fictional characters are caricatures, especially the male characters who “stumble through the mazes of their conceptions of woman”.

Michael Hardin made the case for the theme of homophobia in the novel and proposed that the novel contained a “deeply repressed homoerotic desire that periodically surfaces”.

It remains listed by the American Library Association as one of the 100 most-banned classics and has been censored outside of the U.S. as well.

It was on the list of books banned by Canadian customs as of 1938 and The Royal Canadian Mounted Police seized copies of the book from bookstores and public libraries until the early 1960s when, by 1964, public opinions began to shift.

The only copies to exist in the United Kingdom were those few smuggled in after its publication in 1934. Scotland Yard proposed banning its publication in Britain in the 1960s, but decided the act would be political suicide because nationally celebrated literary icons such as T. S. Eliot were ready to defend the book publicly.

Tropic was also banned in Turkey as recently as 1986.

Henry Miller’s writing was a revolutionary literary style that reimagined the semi-autobiographical genre by blending character study, social commentary, philosophical introspection, explicit language, and sexual themes that are instantly recognizable and relatable to anyone who has ever stepped outside their own front door into the real world.

The only thing obscene about Tropic of Cancer is that it contains those subjects and language that society wishes to keep hidden and pretend does not exist as prevalently as they always have in human history. Detractors aren’t upset about others in society being influenced by the themes in Miller’s works; they’re worried about seeing something inside themselves reflected back up from between the stark contrasts of the black and white of the printed page.


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

Sources: Wikipedia, Huffington Post, New York Times, American Library Association, The File Room, LA Times
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions