Freedom of Speech is what differentiates Democracies from Autocracies. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guaranteeing free speech, freedom of assembly and the right to practice one’s religion without government interference, is the most important of those first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. While most Americans probably agree that citizens should have a right to say whatever they choose, both extremes, left and right are attempting to curtail that speech. The most recent examples are on the one hand, the banning of books in schools and on the other, the exit from Twitter of those who believe that censorship of certain individuals is not only acceptable but warranted. I do not agree with either! As I recently wrote, “Disinformation is Free Speech.” It’s up to individuals to make judgements of what they choose to believe. It should never be the decision of government, media or interest groups, no matter how “well intentioned.”
So, it naturally follows that I do not support the banning of any speech, verbal or written. However, this issue is not simple when it comes to the education of our children. Should grammar school libraries carry books about suicide or drug abuse for example? Most parents would differ in their opinions and children differ in their comprehension. As a parent, I would have to question what’s happening in the home of an eight-year-old contemplating suicide, or even wanting to read about it, before they know what it is to live life. Psychologists would certainly disagree on age appropriateness, as age is not always the determining factor in defining readiness. Some people believe it’s never too early to teach children about sex and gender, while others want their children to simply learn to read, to add and subtract and to make friends. Who is right? I can’t answer that question, as there is no right answer.
The ultimate decision about what’s best for one’s child is based on personal feelings, emotions and upbringing, which is why there’s so much division. There’s also division because when it comes to topics like gender, it’s relatively new and unfamiliar to most parents. Since the majority of parents will never face this situation, they don’t necessarily want their children subjected to the information. However, the parents of a trans gender student, doesn’t want their child being ostracized or abused simply because they’re different. Having books available on a variety of topics is the best way to allay people’s fears about that which they don’t understand. It’s the best way to show other children that while a classmate may be different, it doesn’t mean they’re weird or crazy. But are some books more appropriate than others?
Banning books indiscriminately, is not the answer to eliminating the discourse. Only discussion and compromise will solve these issues. There are sexually explicit books that may not be appropriate for public school libraries. One such book, the most targeted book for banning in public schools, is Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. This book has sexual images including a grown man holding the genitals of a young boy and another depicting the author, Maia Kobabe’s girlfriend, performing oral sex on her while Kobabe is wearing a phallus. Out of the Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez, addresses the topics of teen sex and rape. For some parents, these two books are not only fine, but educational. For others, they push the envelope to the level of pornography, and they don’t want their children having access in the school library. There is no right or wrong here, and all opinions must be respected.
Schools and school districts should therefore set up committees comprised of parents, teachers and psychologists who are charged with determining what books are and aren’t appropriate for children and teens. Of course, it would require the books actually be read. Too often, opinions are based on what’s reported on social media or in the mainstream media. There needs to be consensus, which will ultimately put an end to at least some of the bickering. According to PEN America, between July of 2021 and June 2022, “books were banned 2,532 times in public schools across the U.S.” Let me reiterate, no books should ever be banned from our public libraries or bookstores. Public schools however are subject to certain standards.
Religion should never be a consideration in making these decisions in public schools. Religious dogma often runs counter to intelligent thought. Therefore, only serious concerns, provided by members of the committees, should be considered. Parents who want religion to guide public school decisions should put their children into religious schools. There can be no compromise.
The banning of books in our public schools is complex because there is no right and wrong. The answer to what reading material is age appropriate is subject to opinion and interpretation. We therefore must reach some consensus and not simply add to the list of what separates the left and right, which is what this has become. These decisions shouldn’t require lawsuits. The determination must be fair and balanced, not targeted. If we are able to achieve this, perhaps we can return to what matters most, educating our kids and getting them caught up following the Covid pandemic.