Defending Banned Books.....Again

By Sarah Armstrong, Outreach Coordinator

In Oregon, people not only enjoy the freedom of speech, assembly, and religion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but also a more broadly interpreted “freedom of expression” in the state constitution. Oregonians have repeatedly said they do not want government deciding what they can read, see or hear - so naturally, we love Banned Books Week! It is the perfect opportunity to exercise two of our most fundamental rights: the freedom of speech, and the right to assemble.

The ACLU of Oregon celebrates this important occasion by hosting events, distributing over 13,000 “I read banned books” buttons to libraries and bookstores statewide, and by publishing a list of books challenged in Oregon.

You’d think banning books is a relic of the past, but sadly it isn’t.  Since the American Library Association started the Banned Books Week tradition in 1982, over 11,000 books have been challenged, 348 being reported to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom last year alone.

The ACLU began defending banned books with James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1933. But just this year in Missouri, the ACLU was compelled to take on a school board that banned Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, a classic repeatedly found on the Banned Books list.

And so we observe Banned Books Week…again.   

In Portland, we kicked off the week with a Banned Books reading at Powell’s City of Books (the world’s largest bookstore as well as a defender of the freedom to read!) Bitch magazine's Andi Zeisler emceed the event which featured local authors and artists speaking out against censorship. Illustrator Jonathan Hill shared panels from his graphic novel, Americus, about a community that tries to ban a fantasy series and the plucky teen that saves them. Local radio host, Courtenay Hameister, reimagined Judy Blume’s oft challenged, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and interspersed it with plenty of content that is frequently cited as reasons for challenges - “inappropriate for the age group,”  “violence” “homosexuality,” and “sexually explicit material”. Her new racy version of the beloved story about a young girl who struggles with her religious beliefs and puberty brought lots of laughs from the audience!

On Saturday, we will close out the week by celebrating freedom of expression at our Uncensored Celebration. This edgy, music-filled evening will feature performances by local Portland bands and DJs in between readings from our favorite banned lyrics and books.

Maybe there will come a day when Banned Books Week isn’t relevant, but until then, claim your first amendment rights and read a banned book.