Our obligation to free speech

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Earlier this month, Adrienne Westenfeld wrote a piece in Esquire magazine about the recent rise in the number of banned books. According to the American Library Association, the number in the United States surged to 729 books in 2021, the highest total since the statistic was tracked.

Westenfeld believes this increase reflects the larger cultural war concerning sexuality and gender. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas wants to ban books with “overtly sexual” content, which has been widely interpreted as those with references to LGBTQ material. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law requiring public elementary schools to post searchable library databases that would allow books to be targeted and removed by outside groups. And in Wyoming, a prosecutor considered seeking criminal charges against public librarians who stocked books with LGBTQ themes. Imagine locking up librarians for doing their jobs!

Political conservatives have put libraries in their crosshairs. However, banning books is a culture war loss, even if proponents claim victory in a particular battle. In the Esquire article, Westenfeld cited a recent poll by CBS News that said 87% of Americans are against banning books.

Still, the same unpopular arguments are used as justification. Censors claim that books and other printed media influence behavior by reshaping opinions. It is true that the aim of certain writers is to persuade. Let’s suppose reading this humble column in your local newspaper might actually change your mind…

But if that were to happen, you would not have been brainwashed. You would still have a moral compass. Words can be persuasive, yet your opinion is ultimately yours.

Of course, as a parent, I have discretion over what materials I give to my young readers, including books with mature themes and graphic content. But that doesn’t mean I should control what other people read. That would infringe their right.

Let me offer a metaphor. My dear friend is a devout Muslim. For religious reasons, Ahmad abstains from eating pork. While I do not meet him for BBQ sandwiches at lunch, neither does my friend insist that those restaurants close down. He understands that his right to religious freedom, while guaranteed in this country, does not curtail the rights of others. Despite his personal position on pork, Ahmad is a good citizen for recognizing that I enjoy it!

Scott Hershovitz, director of the Law and Ethics Program and professor at the University of Michigan, clarifies that “rights are relationships. … At least two people are party to every right: the right holder and the obligation bearer.” I appreciate the language of “relationships” and “obligation” because democracy is a duty and citizenship a responsibility. In terms of free speech, you have a right to publish; others have the right to read you. I have an obligation to allow your book in the public space, even if I don’t agree with you. Therefore, public libraries should not be censored by partisan politicians.

In response to the record number of banned books, Patricia Wong, president of the American Library Association, issued this statement: “Despite this organized effort to ban books, libraries remain ready to do what we always have: make knowledge and ideas available so people are free to choose what to read.” That is democracy at work.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”

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