Prevent an Orwellian future by banishing book bans

Though all books provide value to society, few impact the public consciousness like George Orwell’s “1984,” which turns 75 years old this month.

Published in the United Kingdom on June 8, 1949, and hitting United States bookstores on June 13, 1949, this dystopian novel introduced phrases such as “Orwellian,” “Big Brother,” “Groupthink,” “Doublespeak,” “Thoughtcrime,” and more into public discourse as it explored themes of censorship, government surveillance, and nationalism.

The novel relays a cautionary tale of governmental overreach, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer invoked the story in United States v. Jones (2012), a case dealing with warrantless GPS tracking by police and the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

As Ericka Smith wrote for Pretty Literate, “We live in a time when social control is exercised through disinformation and surveillance is commonplace; a time when fake information is the norm and the everyday citizen is at a loss to know who to believe. What is more ‘1984’ than that?”

Yet, besides being widely popular, impactful, and prophetic, “1984” is also one of the most challenged and banned books of all time due to its topics of communism and sexuality.

Such attacks on the novel are particularly hypocritical because they demonstrate the exact actions “Big Brother” took and Orwell was speaking out against — censoring thought and expression so only the opinions of those in power are accepted.

That’s why book challenges and bans are ridiculous, or Orwellian. 

We should all enjoy the “marketplace of ideas” as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. suggested in his dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States (1919). It argues for the free expression and exchange of ideas and opinions. 

Inspiring Justice Holmes was John Stuart Mill’s 1859 publication “On Liberty,” which also provides a powerful argument against censorship and advocates for “the collision of adverse opinions” to pursue truth and enhance individuality. 

It’s part of the core of the theory of free speech, which is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

The First Amendment grants citizens the rights of free speech, free press, religious liberty, peaceably assembling, and petitioning the government to redress grievances. All these rights fit under the umbrella of free expression, which includes the right to protest by wearing a black armband as in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) or refusing to salute the flag due to religious beliefs as in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943).

Relatedly, Texas v. Johnson (1989) upheld free expression rights by finding that burning an American flag was protected expression. The majority opinion written by Justice William Brennan encapsulates a majority of the argument against book banning or any other form of censorship: “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

Therefore, the First Amendment also protects the writing, publishing, and reading of books. Maintaining access to these volumes prevents “Big Brother” or any other despot from forcing everyone to hold the same opinion on a given topic. 

Knowledge is the power to think for oneself, and books allow individuals to gain information.

Removing books or otherwise kowtowing to the bemoaning of individuals violates the ideals of the First Amendment, and it damages democratic society.

As former head librarian of the St. Louis Public Library from 1877 to 1909 and American Library Association president from 1887 to 1889, Frederick M. Crunden’s views on the matter are etched into the stone over the main entrance to the St. Louis Public Library: “Recorded thought is our chief heritage from the past, the most lasting legacy we can leave to the future. Books are the most enduring monument of man’s achievements. Only through books can civilization become cumulative.”

Based on this, it should be no surprise that the ALA tracks banned and challenged books. Every September, the organization hosts “Banned Books Week,” during which abhorrent censorship practices are highlighted to raise awareness about this menace to society.

Even so, book challenges are on the rise. Sadly, it isn’t surprising that many of the challenges focus on books with LGBTQ+ themes. However, some states, such as Maryland and Minnesota, are passing laws to ban book bans, and independent bookstores are popping up to make banned books available again, such as in Florida, which is the center of the book-banning debate

Kansas has gotten in on the act as well, but not in support of books. 

For example, in July 2023 the Sterling Free Public Library made national headlines and faced widespread condemnation when its board fired the library director for her decisions on what books to display and how to decorate the library, especially during June’s Pride Month

Don’t allow close-minded individuals the power and leverage to bend communities to their myopic views of the world. 

People who are challenging books and pursuing bans are just parroting Mom’s for Liberty and Book Looks talking points. 

Their objections to materials have little to do with actual concerns. Rather, they are pushing extremist political and ideological agendas that have become more mainstream thanks to the political division and polarization our country has experienced in recent years.

During the May 5 episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the titular host tackled the topic of book bans and public libraries. He presented a scathing defense of libraries. He made numerous valid points, but the most salient was this: “This is all madness. While it is understandable for parents to want to have a say in what their kids can check out from the library, it is not their right to have a say in what can be checked out at all.”

Such a statement hits the nail on the head. The books being challenged aren’t being forced upon anyone. If you don’t want to read it, don’t. If you don’t want your children to read it, go to the library with them and discuss why certain books aren’t appropriate for them.

However, people must stop nannying their entire communities by attempting to censor what others can access. 

And if anyone thinks books are bad, wait until they hear about the internet.

So, instead of banning books, increase access to them. Encourage more people to read and read a diverse range of authors and topics. Take the advice offered in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” which is also commonly challenged and banned: “Stuff your eyes with wonder . . . live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds.”

Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D., is a native of Canton, a resident of McPherson County, and an assistant professor of media at Sterling College. He can be contacted with questions or comments via his website at www.toddvogts.com.

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About toddvogts 840 Articles
Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of media at Sterling College in Kansas. Previously, he taught yearbook, newspaper, newsmagazine, and online journalism in various Kansas high schools, and he ran a weekly newspaper in rural Kansas. He continues to freelance as a professional journalist from time to time. Also, Vogts is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Journalism Education Association (JEA), and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), among others. He earned his Master Journalism Educator (MJE) certification from JEA in 2022. When he’s not teaching or writing, he runs his mobile disk jockey service and takes part in other entrepreneurial ventures. He can be reached at twitter.com/toddvogts or via his website at www.toddvogts.com.