Schools and libraries are institutions that still regularly find themselves embroiled in literary censorship debates. Those debates often include discussions about the acquisition of literary materials and access to them. Acquisition of literary content, such as books, is the heart of many censorship debates but the face of these debates is access where we’ve seen dramatic change.
The primary challenge faced by school and library boards in terms of acquisition is that boards must weigh public sentiment about the materials they acquire and render decisions. Little has changed since the Supreme Court granted that latitude in 1982 when it handed down its decision in Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 versus Pico.
Other aspects of these debates, such as the rationale offered by censorship advocates, have also remained fairly static. Targeted materials are often described as offensive, threatening, subversive or blasphemous because they contain sex, profanity, violence, racism and, curiously, magic. Yes, it seems the character of that miscreant, Harry Potter, stoked the censorship fires. So it seems that at least that much has changed. But even though the censorship of Harry Potter is laughable to some, that reaction underscores what is inherent in every censorship debate: Censorship advocates feel offended or threatened and censorship opponents, if not merely amused or ambivalent, may feel compelled to resist.
Resistance to literary censorship rises when it strikes people as egregious. But all of us are not struck in the same way, to the same degree, or even about the same things. There may be examples of censorship that would rise to that level for the majority, such as book burning, but individual perspectives still vary to a significant degree. That hasn’t changed and likely never will because we come from different places, cultures, schools, churches, families, communities and experiences. But rather than lament that fact we hold different opinions, we might consider celebrating it.
The challenges associated with access have been dramatically impacted by technology. The amount of digitally-stored literature being consumed has soared. Schools and libraries now use Internet filters to control access to literary content and the management of access to that material involves administrative personnel, standards, configuration and monitoring. It’s no longer a matter of simply putting a book on a shelf.
The challenges of access have also pulled corporate censorship into the debate. Much of the Internet is owned by private companies which are not bound by the laws that limit government censorship. Literature, therefore, is vulnerable and literary censorship based on profit margin rather than politics, religion, or ideology is not likely to make anyone feel more comfortable.
Issues with corporate censorship to date could be characterized as minor flare-ups. Paypal has backed off their recent ultimatum to ebooksellers that they refrain from selling books containing rape, incest, underage sex and bestiality. But all the conditions exist for what could amount to a giant wildfire. Those conditions include the fact that media conglomerates, harboring their own bias, control significant content as well as infrastructure that supports Internet access for both wired and mobile devices.
The changing face of censorship presents new challenges related to technology and corporate censorship that we must tackle but the heart of censorship remains much the same which suggests there may be little to do on that front but acknowledge the opinions of others and champion our personal positions.