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The Easy, Ugly Impulse to Ban Books and Punish Librarians and Teachers

The Founders would recognize it—and be ashamed by it.
April 7, 2022
The Easy, Ugly Impulse to Ban Books and Punish Librarians and Teachers

Efforts to ban books from libraries and to control the public expression of dissent—the subject of a House subcommittee hearing today—would dismay and disturb our nation’s founders. Having fought a revolution provoked, at least in part, by Britain’s denial of freedom of expression in its American colonies, they would be shocked at this illiberal tendency.

Here’s how the Continental Congress, in its “Appeal to the Inhabitants of Quebec” written in 1774 seeking support against England, described freedom of the press and of speech:

The importance of this consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated into more honorable and just modes of conducting affairs.

In 1787, the Framers of the Constitution saw important values inherent in the principle of freedom of inquiry: the search for truth, scientific progress, cultural development, increased virtue among citizens, holding governmental officials to account, strengthening the community, and serving as a check on politicians. Today, as we rush to ban books and limit the freedom of inquiry, we are tossing aside those values.

In doing so, we risk becoming that which our forebears rebelled against. Instead of exalting the liberty of free inquiry some now seek to restrict thought and channel it into “accepted” ideas. Consider these troubling indicators:

In a handful locations around the country, individuals have filed criminal complaints against librarians or educators—as if by bringing criminal charges, one could limit disagreements. One such proposed charge was sought against a public library in Wyoming; another was advanced in a school district in Florida. To date, law enforcement and prosecutors have (thankfully) declined to pursue any charges, yet the push continues.

Meanwhile, a group called Moms for Liberty in Williamson County, Tennessee, objected to a number of children’s books in the local elementary school, including a picture book about seahorses that they alleged to be “social conditioning” because it explains that male seahorses “are the only male fish to get ‘pregnant’ . . . growing their young inside their own bodies”—as if banning the books would change the science.

Pages from the 2006 book ‘Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea.’

While it is easy to dismiss these efforts as those of a vocal minority (and they really are a minority of Americans), the truth is that the impulse to censor increasingly finds purchase among elected officials.

The essential fact is that public schools and public libraries are community institutions. They support our society by enabling everyone in the community to share in the search for truth. To be sure, parents ought to be able to judge what is best for their own children. But that doesn’t mean that they should be able to dictate what is right and proper for everyone else to read.

It is particularly disturbing that the efforts to ban or restrict books very often involve books about people who are different—whether because of their sexuality or their race or for some other reason.

Perhaps the campaign is a noble effort to shield children from some of the world’s difficult realities. But it is also, sometimes, the expression of a baser instinct, one that the Founders would be familiar with, to suppress dissent and erase differences.

Books have great power. That is why authoritarians restrict them. And that is why, soon after the government was formed in 1789 under the new Constitution, Congress and the states moved quickly to protect the freedom of speech and expression via what became the First Amendment. As James Madison put it, in opposing earlier efforts to restrict the spread of ideas that the government opposed, even speech that creates “a contempt, a disrepute, or hatred [of the government] among the people” should be tolerated because the only way of determining whether such contempt is justified is “by a free examination [of the government’s actions], and a free communication among the people thereon.”

When Americans today look to limit the freedom of inquiry, they reject an important lesson of our Founders—that free inquiry is the engine of liberty. They do so at their own peril.

Paul Rosenzweig

Paul Rosenzweig is the principal at Red Branch Consulting and a former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security. The views expressed here are his own.