Monday, April 14, 2008

Bookselling and the First Amendment


As someone who has lived outside of the country for extended periods of time, I cherish the values of the First  Amendment.

This is specifically true, because I have lived in places where what was written, sold and even said was censored, 

There is a particular kind of fear associated with living under that kind of repression that the average American can not even imagine!

When I was younger the prevailing attitude in the US was that censorship as one of those things that happens in Communist countries. Now that Communism is less of a perceived threat, I'm not sure that the average person even thinks much about censorship at all.  Certainly in the age of the "war on terror" most Americans are more concerned with their security than something that seems like a vague ideal.

In this climate it is not surprising that there have been some substantial efforts over the last five years to control bookseller and the books they sell.  Much of this effort is all dressed up in the guise of protecting children which sounds like an eminently good idea.

Let me say, categorically, that I believe that there are books and other printed materials that are wildly inappropriate for children and teenagers. And there is much that is printed that I personally find downright offensive.  I am not an advocate for pornography.  I want to guard the young and innocent in my family as much as anyone does!

It is safe to say that we can all agree that children are precious and guarding their innocence is important.  But how we do that is less clear.  And yet, the how is of utmost importance.  I believe that we need to carefully consider what constitutes protection.

The current cultural norm is that we protect children by guarding them from things that are deemed "harmful to minors".  OK.  So what exactly does the phrase "harmful to minors" mean?

Here is the current legal definition:

"For the purposes of the law, matter is "harmful to minors" if: "

  • it describes or represents, in any form, nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sado-masochistic abuse; considered as a whole,
  • it appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors; it is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable matter for minors;
  • and considered as a whole, it lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors"

This explanation sends a little chill down my spine! 

Off the top this means:  No romance novels, no medical or health books, no encyclopedias or dictionaries.  Books on anthropology, sociology, psychology and even law are largely unacceptable.  Under this definition Shakespeare and the Bible are definitely forbidden for teens -- no King No David and Bathsheba or Romeo and Juliet until you are over eighteen.

This started me thinking about my choices in reading material as a teenager. I was a avid reader.  One summer I read the entire Jean Plaidy  series about the royal families of England; something like 40 volumes.  They were full of sex and violence, but I probably still know more about British history and the British royal families than most people do.  I don't think reading those novels harmed me in any way. 

Now, take a look at the New York Times Best Seller list.  Not one of the current fiction titles listed could be sold to a minor under this legal definition because at some point they all include (at the very least) descriptions of sexual excitement.

In order to really follow this legal definition, booksellers should "card" anyone purchasing fiction, health books and as noted before, the Bible. How long will it take until someone or some group compiles a list of acceptable and non acceptable books?

It seems that there is something very wrong when we feel the need for booksellers to protect minors at the expense of creativity, literature and in the pursuit of some vague idea of this protection.

My biggest concern, however, is where does it end?  Where is the line between concern and censorship?  At what point to do we ban and burn books?  At what point do we squelch creativity?

I don't really have answers.  But I do believe that this is something that bears much thought and discussion. Just passively letting it happen is not a good alternative. 

These quiet intrusions will ultimately make huge inroads into our freedom of expression.  The price of ignoring it will be devastating.


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