Monday, September 19, 2011

Banned Books and Human Rights

"Books and ideas are the most effective weapons against intolerance and ignorance."
                                     -Lyndon Johnson

"If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."
                           -Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.

  In 2006, after jail time, repeated death threats and harassment, Anna Politkovskaya was shot and killed in her home in Russia.  During her life she bravely published on human rights abuses in Chechnya, on state corruption, military violence, and police brutality in spite of serious threats of harm.  Even though her murder received wide spread international attention, her alleged killer wasn't arrested until May 31, 2011 (Amnesty International).
  Every year during Banned Books Week (September 24th-October 1st), Amnesty International showcases individuals from all over the world who have been harassed, tortured, imprisoned or killed because of the things that they have written, often due to the writer's exposure of human rights abuses or for writing a critical analysis of a country.
  The correlation between human rights and freedom of speech/press has been explored in many western countries since the mid-18th century (arguably even earlier).  In his play, "Almansor", published in 1821, German poet and playwright Heinrich Heine wrote, "Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menchen." (Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people).  This was chillingly prophetic in that roughly one hundred years later Fascist and Communist governments censored books, magazines, and newspapers critical of government activities or those thought to be counterrevolutionary.  On May 10th, 1933 the most famous of these events took place in Berlin and other major university towns in Germany.  German students who had adopted fascist, antisemitic ideology sponsored events to purge the country of "un-German spirit".  Their activities ended with the burning of over 25,000 books.  The largest event took place in the Opernplatz in Berlin where 40,000 people came to hear a man by the name of Joseph Goebbels speak.  During his speech to the crowd he stated, "No to decadence and moral corruption...Yes to decency and morality in family and state.  I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, and Erich Kästner."  These events were an early expression of hatred for the Jewish people (and Gay men, Roma, communists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Poles amongst others) that ended with the mass murder of over 6 million people.
  While most industrialized countries and indeed many developing countries mandate freedom of speech and press constitutionally or through common law, various works deemed "immoral" or "dangerous" are banned on national, state/provincial or local levels in schools, public libraries and online.  Countries that have been criticised for censorship include China, Iran, Cuba and North Korea.
  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has served as the foundation of international law includes freedom of speech and press as rights afforded to people simply because they are human. Article 19 states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
  The United States however has not been immune from threats of censorship.  The American Library Association (ALA) created Banned Books Week to highlight the need for awareness of attempts to censor books and other publication materials.  The organization sites three major reasons for these attempts.
   -Sexually explicit material
   -Offensive Language
   -Unsuited to any age group
  While the American Library Association understands why individuals would want certain books banned, their position is that, "Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents- and only parents- have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children- and only their children- to library resources."
  Examples of the most banned books in the US during the 2000-2009 decade includes: the "Harry Potter" series by JK Rowling, "His Dark Materials" series by Phillip Pullman, "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck, and "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou.

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