Banned Books Week: When FIRE defended the right to read
In honor of Banned Books Week, today we’re reflecting on memorable FIRE cases involving access to literature. Access to a diverse literature — and the freedom from the fear of punishment for utilizing that access — is one of the most important educational resources a university can offer its students. FIRE proudly defends the students’ right to access literature and professors’ right to assign controversial works.
In the spring of 2015, a student and her parents pressured Crafton Hills College to add a trigger warning to an English course syllabus on graphic novels.
The family objected to the violent and sextual content the student would be exposed to, including acclaimed works such as “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel, “Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1” by Brian Vaughan, and “The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House” by Neil Gaiman.
In comments to the Los Angeles Times, the student called the works “garbage” and said she wanted them “eradicated from the system.” In signing up for the class, she said, she “expected Batman and Robin, not pornography.”
This is especially ironic, as most of the iconic Batman graphic novel tradeback collections — including “The Killing Joke,” “The Long Halloween,” and “The Dark Knight Returns” — contain no shortage of sexual and violent content of their own. In other words, well, graphic content.
When Crafton Hills initially agreed to add a trigger warning to the syllabus, FIRE stepped up and wrote to the college warning of the chilling effect “trigger warnings” may pose to academic freedom. In an additional show of support, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Association of University Professors, the American Booksellers for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the PEN American Center sent a joint letter urging Crafton Hills to protect academic freedom.
In Crafton Hills’ response to FIRE’s letter, President Cheryl Marshall, reversed the school’s earlier decision and agreed that the trigger warning mandate “sets an unhealthy precedent and does not encourage free expression of views and speech, particularly in an educational institution.”
In June of 2014, FIRE was dismayed to see then South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley approve a provision in the state’s budget punishing the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate for assigning books with LGBT themes as required freshman reading. The books they found objectionable included Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio” by Ed Madden and Candace Chellew-Hodge.
The troublesome provision required the two public institutions to spend the same amount of funds spent teaching the LGBT-themed books, on teaching the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers, “including the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals.”
FIRE wrote to Gov. Haley in March 2014 urging her to avoid punishing academic institutions for their choice of curriculum. Additionally, FIRE joined yet another broad coalition — including the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Association of University Professors, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Dramatists Guild, the Modern Language Association, and the National Council of Teachers of English — in signing an open letter condemning the budget provision.
One of FIRE’s most memorable cases took place at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in 2008. We took action after student-employee Keith John Sampson was reported for, and found guilty of, racial harassment for merely reading “Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan” during work breaks.
The charge of racial harassment was especially confounding because the book chronicles the struggle of Notre Dame students to diminish the influence of the KKK in the 1920s and the general decline of the KKK in Indiana.
Thanks to FIRE’s involvement, months of back and forth with the university, and extensive media coverage, the ruling against Sampson was overturned. Sampson’s story ultimately went on to be the subject of a documentary short from filmmaker Andrew Marcus.
No matter how cliche the old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” may sound, as long as cases like this occur, it’s a phrase that we at FIRE will be repeating.
Schools: Crafton Hills College Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis Cases: South Carolina Legislature Punishes State Universities for Assigning LGBT-themed Books Crafton Hills College: Content Warning on Graphic Novel Coursework Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis: Student Employee Found Guilty of ‘Racial Harassment’ for Reading a Book