BLOWING OUT BONFIRES (a user's guide for saving banned books)

by: J. Edward Tremlett

They say we have the right to free speech, and the right to hear, see, or read that speech, but in schools across the country this is not true. Books are being challenged, removed, and banned from school libraries and classrooms. Books by Judy Blume and John Stienbeck, Mark Twain and Stephen King, even the Bible and certain dictionaries have come under fire. All in the name of "protecting the children."

Every year we "celebrate" banned book week; a time when we reflect on how precious, and fragile our First Amendment really is. And every year I wish there was no such week. Wishful thinking, I suppose, but lately I've started to think that it isn't such an impossible dream after all.

Why? Because book banning CAN be fought. Attempts have been defeated in cities all over the U.S. People have come together and defended books, often times outnumbering the people who complained in the first place. Parents, teachers, school board members, all coming together to save a book from the scrap heap. It does work, when people care enough to put up a fight.

I'm convinced that many people don't fight because they don't know how. The opposition always seems so well-organized and well-funded, and seems to have all the time in the world. How can you compete with that when you've got a full-time job and budget problems? What do you do when they've got a sympathetic ear on the board? Who do you call for help?

Hopefully this article will answer some of these questions, and steer you towards help for more difficult ones that may crop up.

1. RAISE YOUR KIDS TO READ: Many parents will rely solely on the schools to instill a love of learning and self-discovery in their children. This is not only unrealistic but lazy. Long term memory sets in at, or around 2, and the core of who and what they are will start to form. Habits acquired now will be the hardest to shake, so why not get them hooked on reading?

Teach your children that the library can be a friend, not just an intimidating resource for infrequent school projects. Get them a library card as soon as they're responsible enough to handle one and let them go wild. And don't worry about them checking out "un-wholesome" material under your nose: you're the parent, and if you feel a particular work is a little above their development then don't let them get it.

Schools have a set, minimal curriculum they have to follow, and don't do too much beyond that. Exceptional teachers will take good students under their wing and encourage them, yes, but the best place to find encouragement, support, and self-discipline is in the home. Independent readers often make the best scholars, and the research skills they learn early will prove invaluable in high school or college. Good readers make good thinkers, and critical thinking is essential to good citizenship.

In short, it takes a little effort, a lot of patience, and a lot of love to raise a reader, but it's more than worth it in the long run.

2. VOTE CAREFULLY AND OFTEN: One of the most bitter ironies about life in America is that we've been free for so long that we take it for granted. Thousands die around the world to get the right to vote and we sit an our asses come election day, wondering if there is something we ought to do. Few people vote during National elections and even fewer vote in state and local, leaving the field open to dedicated minorities with a candidate to match. This can be troublesome.

Groups like the Christian Coalition, Pat Robertson's new/old Right outfit, have been scoring victories all over the place by running "stealth candidates." They will run for school board, or other local post, and not say that they're with the CC unless asked, preferring to not make it an issue. And if the local CC all make it to the polls on election day and everyone else stays home to watch TV..., well ho, look who won. And that's not saying anything about the usual idjits and freakazoids that run on the "traditional values" plank for Mayor, City Council, or whatever.

Take the time to investigate who's running. This can usually be accomplished by keeping up with the local news, but occasionally you have to do some digging. Listen to what they say and how they say it, or when. Asking good questions during debates can be helpful: "Who is your favorite children's author?" "Have you ever heard of the Eagle Forum?" What's your position on textbook review?" Questions like these can quickly weed out "stealth" candidates, unless they're lying through their teeth.

3. KEEP INFORMED: Again, reading the local papers, watching the news, and keeping an ear to the ground is one of the best ways to know who's doing what. Have your children tell you what's going on in school , and stay alert for any suspicious guest-speakers at local churches-James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, Beverly LaHaye, Jay Sekulow, or the like. If you have time it's worth writing away to people like the Eagle Forum to get some of their info and see what they're out to get this month. JUST DON'T SEND THEM ANY MONEY!!!

4. ORGANIZE & PUBLICIZE: If you ever hear anything that smacks of a book challenge, get moving immediately. Letters to the editor demanding the removal of a particular book should be refuted. Confrontations at school board meetings should be counter-confronted.

Get some of your friends who feel the same way as you to help write, and sign, a letter to all of the local papers talking about the controversy. Call the local papers and make sure they're aware of it, perhaps even getting them to send out a reporter. Calling the TV news wouldn't hurt either. The more the media gets involved, the greater chance the book-banners will get nervous and slip up.

While you've got those friends together, you might want to cobble together an ad hoc organization to take care of the problem. You won't have to worry about raising large amounts of money or filing as a non-profit organization; that's for the big-leagues. You're just dealing with a specific problem, although you might want to keep the links open in case something similar happens again!

And be sure to contact People For the American Way to let them know what's going on. Every year PFAW prints up an annual report on attacks on the right to read, and they will want to know about it. A call to the American Civil Liberties Union for advice might not be amiss either, especially if the book-banners are threatening legal action of some kind.

5. KNOW THY ENEMY: Before you confront these people, you MUST find out who they are and where they're coming from. It is really easy to stereotype all book-banners as evil fascists who goose-step around their homes, but this is not always so. Often times they're just concerned citizens, like yourself, who want the best for their children; it's just that their definition of what that is and yours' don't match.

The best way to do this is to ask them--politely, of course. From whence did the concern come? Did they actually read the book in question, or did they just get a synopsis from the Eagle Forum? What are their specific objections? Why are these objectionable to them? If they feel it's "occult" then what do they define as occult? What's their definition of "normal" sexual behavior or development. How did they decide those definitions?

Sometimes what will happen is that the Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America, or other groups will begin a national campaign against a certain book or program - like PUMSY or sex education in general--and have their local chapters work with concerned citizens to have the offending material removed. For this reason alone, it pays to keep track of what they're doing: not only do you know why they're doing it, you'll have some advance warning.

6. SHOW UP!: Many people don't want to attend school board meetings because they are so stuffy and boring. These people will only be able to achieve their goal by attending, and so should you. Believe me, there's nothing like a good controversy to liven up the proceedings.

When speaking, always be polite to the board members, even if you can't stand them. Emphasize the fact that you are just as concerned about your children's moral development and education as the book-banners, but that there is a difference between protecting your children and protecting someone else's. You might want to suggest that, if the opposition has a problem with their child reading a certain book, an alternate selection could be offered for those children whose parents objected.

Remember to be a good listener too. Don't heckle or talk out of turn. Don't use profanity, however much you might be sorely tempted to. And always be polite to the people you're there to counter: you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Don't feel you have to let them walk all over you, though.

If they bring anyone from Concerned Women for America, the Eagle Forum, or any other group to speak, be sure to point out (when it's your turn at the mike) that those visitors are just that: VISITORS. They don't pay taxes here, they don't have children in this school system, and they've probably never been in town before today. They don't have a stake in what goes on here, but you, and your children, do.

7. KEEP FIGHTING: Hopefully the school board will vote in favor of reason and keep the book available. If they don't, then you may have to wait until a few new school board members come in, or the Superintendent quits, to get the book reinstated. If you think the book in question is okay for your children, then you should encourage them to read it on their own.

Beware of the domino effect. If the book-banners win once, they'll try similar maneuvers every time they have a problem. If they lose, then maybe they will cool their jets, at least for a while. But they will be back.

At the very least, don't let the book-banners enjoy their victory: follow up your earlier letters to the editor with updates, and perhaps a guest column (if you can arrange it with the editor). As usual, be as polite as possible; it won't do to publicly call your opposition a bunch of morons-even if they are-if you're trying to gain sympathy for your cause.

This list is hardly exhaustive; if anything, I've just scratched the surface. If you need more tips, or feel the need to get legal advice or bigger guns, call PFAW, the ACLU, the National Coalition Against Censorship, or any chapter of ROC. I'd be interested to hear any stories you might have, too.

Fighting for principles is hard work. Parents willing to stand up for the rights of books they themselves wouldn't read, or let their children read, are to be commended; they have the best idea of what democracy is all about. And maybe, if we all work together to defeat this scourge, we won't have to "celebrate" banned book week ever again.


People For The American Way
200 M St., NW
Washington, DC 20036

National Coalition Against Censorship
275 7th Ave.
New York, NY 10001

American Civil Liberties Union
132 W. 43rd St.
NY, NY 10036

or the ACLU office in your area.

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