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Ban the Bans

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
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on Wednesday, 01 November 2023 in Wisconsin

movie-to-kill-a-mockingbirdSen. Smith discusses the dangers of censorship and the vital importance of libraries to the cause of intellectual freedom.

MADISON - “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. All titles you may remember from a high school literature syllabus. Yet each of these books have been banned – and in some cases, burned – in the United States.

In October we commemorated Banned Books Week, amidst an increase in attempts at banning books across the nation. In places like Menomonee Falls, certain books have been challenged as being inappropriate and therefore unworthy of inclusion in the library’s catalog. This year, the American Library Association (ALA) has recorded 26 attempts to ban books in Wisconsin and attempts to censor more than 1,900 titles nationwide. This is the highest number of books since they first started collecting data twenty years ago.

This coincides with state legislatures attempting to restrict access to materials across the country. Right here in Wisconsin, a bill was recently circulated for co-sponsorship to require school libraries and public libraries disclose to parents and guardians within 24 hours a list of the materials their child has checked out from the library.

school-tutor-readingAs it stands, if a parent or guardian is concerned about the material their child is accessing through the library, they can request that information. These are reasonable accommodations so parents can provide guidance if they believe their child needs additional context for the content they are reading or consuming.

But automatic notifications disclosing what books your kid is checking out is not the way. On a very practical level, it would be hard for libraries to develop such systems without funding. Libraries are expected to develop these programs using the financial and personnel resources they already have.

The larger concern is the role of privacy in freedom of speech. Privacy has long been a concern of the American Library Association, and has historically included the privacy of youth. Privacy is included in the “Library Bill of Rights,” drafted in 1939. Article VII states, “All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use.” In their publication “Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights”, the ALA clarifies, “The right to privacy includes the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others …. ALA and its members recognize that children and youth have the same right to privacy as adults.”

school-meeting-crowdBook bans and legislation like this are products of the manufactured culture wars we see erupting around the nation. They create a “chilling effect” on speech where, fearful of consequences, people choose for themselves to self-censor what they access or write, diminishing the quality of public discourse and decreasing intellectual freedom.

This past month, my colleague and friend Representative Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) introduced a bill intending to contribute to the ongoing intellectual freedom of our great state by banning book bans. Freedom of speech is one of the founding principles of America, and we must all get behind efforts to protect it. I think we can agree that not all books are for everyone, but it isn’t up to anyone to tell others what they can or cannot read.

jeff-smithI am in total agreement with Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, when she says, “These attacks on our freedom to read should trouble any person who values liberty and our constitutional rights. To allow a group of people or any individual, no matter how powerful or loud, to become the decision-maker about what books we can read or whether libraries exist, is to place all of our rights and liberties in jeopardy.”

From a favorite and trusted author of so many wise words, Theodor Seuss Geisel: “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

Let’s not stand in the way of learning and going places we cannot otherwise reach without the wonder of the written word.

Senator Smith represents District 31 in the Wisconsin State Senate. The 31st Senate District includes all of Buffalo, Pepin and Trempealeau counties and portions of Pierce, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson and St. Croix counties.

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