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Banned Books Week: Depressingly Relevant, Even to College Students

Each year, the American Library Association (ALA) invites free speech advocates and book-lovers across the country to celebrate Banned Books Week. The ALA explains on its website:

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types — in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

But wait, you might be thinking. Aren’t books normally banned in primary and secondary school? Well, there’s no shortage of those scenarios, but sadly, there are also too many people trying to limit what adult students read in the higher education setting. Just this year, two public South Carolina institutions of higher education were punished for including critically acclaimed LGBT-themed books in their freshman required-reading lists. The Huffington Post had the facts:

In the summer of 2013, the College of Charleston assigned "Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel, a bestselling memoir detailing the lesbian author’s relationship with her father, who she later learned is also gay.

[State Rep. Garry] Smith, however, argued in a tweet on Thursday that “Fun Home,” which won the Eisner Award, the GLAAD Media Award and the Lambda Literary Award, “could be considered pornography.”

Conservative S.C. lawmakers targeted [the University of South Carolina] Upstate for assigning “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” a collection of stories from South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show, in a required course for all freshmen.

Taking issue with the books’ treatment of LGBT topics, South Carolina lawmakers initially proposed budget cuts to the two institutions in the amounts that they spent on the book programs. The state legislature and Governor Nikki Haley ultimately approved a provision in the state budget that required the two institutions to spend that same amount of money to teach the U.S. Constitution and other historical documents—a worthy endeavor when not mandated as a punishment for assigning books that someone doesn’t like. As my colleague Will Creeley wrote here on The Torch:

State legislators should not be in the business of dictating the reading lists of college students, let alone punishing educators financially for the pedagogical choices they make. (Both books were chosen by university programs run by faculty members.) This brazen legislative retribution for academic decision making entirely violates any reasonable understanding of academic freedom.

The case illustrates an important point: Students must be vigilant of censorship not just from professors or administrators at their own institutions (as in the infamous case of an Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis student who was found guilty of racial harassment for reading a book about the Ku Klux Klan), but also from legislators and others whose power over universities often far exceeds their understanding of how universities are supposed to function. Universities, after all, are supposed to be “marketplaces of ideas”—and that includes ideas that lawmakers might disapprove of.

Check out ALA’s Banned Books Week website to find out which of your favorite books have come under attack—from Captain Underpants to Fifty Shades of Grey to Beloved, there is (unfortunately) truly something for everyone on the list of banned and challenged books. You can also find local events and other resources on the website.

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