Editor’s Note: This post represents the view of the author and not necessarily the views of the Hemingway Society and its Board. We publish it on the blog to encourage thoughtful and civil debate about this important matter.
Unfortunately, my current home county of Spotsylvania has also decided to dabble in a bit of book banning, although their new policy is very convoluted and difficult to follow. It is questionable whether or not it considers library books as instructional materials unless they are needed for a project or assignment. As one school board member put it when asked for clarification on the enacted policy, “We did not have a second reading of the policy or even any time to ask questions, so I'm sorry I don't have a better understanding.” As of this writing, only five books have been removed/banned (possibly because no one fully understands the policy process?).
In the current environment, it’s important to look back to a 1982 Supreme Court Case, Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico. Although there was no clear decision in the case, it was clear that a majority of the justices felt that the First Amendment imposes limitations upon a local school board's exercise of its discretion to remove books from high school and junior high school libraries. As Justice Brennan noted, In brief, we hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.
Regardless of the current composition of the Supreme Court, this should give encouragement for new cases to be brought regarding book banning within what should be a bastion of free speech and thought – a school library. Many school boards may falter and cave, not wanting the attention and hassle to argue over a high school student deciding to read The Handmaid’s Tale or Beloved, for example. In the meantime, this page on the American Library Association website is a good place to start for anyone wanting more information about how to have their voices heard in this debate.
Why is it always that slippery slope that certain groups are attracted to? Where does the selective editing and banning stop? Consider one of Hemingway’s books from the ALA’s list of Banned & Challenged Classics, For Whom the Bell Tolls, that proved to be pivotal reading for such divergent figures as John McCain and Fidel Castro. Chapter 31 may very well place it in jeopardy with Virginia’s definition of “Sexually Explicit Content.” That, of course, would be patently absurd. And, what happens when someone else is in power and dreams up new policies of what is offensive enough to ban, or selectively revise? To continue with Hemingway, as an example of one of hundreds, if not thousands, of literary figures, whose work could now fall into any manner of “problematic” categories, let us reflect on a passage from Toni Morrison’s Playing in The Dark. Regarding Hemingway’s work, she wrote, “But it would be a pity if the criticism of that literature continued to shellac those texts, immobilizing their complexities and power and laminations just below its tight, reflecting surface.”
Offensive or not, it is for writers such as Hemingway, Morrison, Atwood, and newcomers like 2022 PEN/Hemingway award winner Torrey Peters, to write the truest sentences that they know. It is for schools to teach students to read with a critical eye, think independently, and be able to judge for themselves the honesty and worth of those sentences; not to play the role of judge, jury, and executioner (of words). For that tactic ultimately teaches only one thing: totalitarianism.
J.S. Campbell is a Substack journalist, author and poet. He is a Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction Finalist and has been published in the Virginia’s Best Emerging Poets Anthology – 2019 and the Poetry Society of Virginia Centennial Anthology.