I am forever grateful for the idea of free speech, or I would have to be writing this article from the dark depths of a prison. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, it is not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate. And yet the First Amendment made to the Constitution, a hallowed document protecting the freedom of Americans, finds itself once again under attack with the recent surge in the banning of books. According to NPR news, school book bans rose about 33% in the last year, with Florida being at the forefront of these actions.
Many conservative groups claim that children are too naive to possibly understand certain complex themes such as abuse, LGBTQ+ identities, and race or racism, leading to confusion about what is and is not appropriate. After all, certain issues are hard to read about — no one of any age is really ever ready to face them, but by banning these ideas in schools, students are not only prevented from having the support to face these ideas, but these authors are legally being prevented from expressing their ideas.
The purpose of an education is to provide the foundation to develop, analyze and perpetuate free ideas. Without this, an education just creates identical machines. Controversial literature not only builds empathy and the ability to comprehend the gray areas of current world issues, but it is highly effective in providing a third person point of view. It helps us think more critically about the fast-paced world we live in. The problems characters in books face can help provide closure for life-changing events that many teens face, and by removing access to these books, schools are preventing these students from achieving a conclusion. At the end of the day, books are meant to tell a story.
Banning a book destroys the value and validity of a person’s stories. Parents may try to ask that their teacher not teach a certain book, but how can public access be removed for all students? The rate that this has been occurring is unprecedented in American Public schools.
The core purpose of an education is to perpetuate the cold, hard truth to younger generations, so what are these leaders trying to say by banning books related to some of the largest social issues of today? Are they attempting to mold students that fit their own agenda? Are they implying that these issues do not exist? These attacks are not just an attack on education, but on democracy and the freedom of speech and identity itself. America’s “Free Speech Problem,” as quoted by the New York Times, coincides with America’s long history of squashing people’s opinions that continues to haunt today.
Look to the founding of this country, when the poor were prevented from having a vote. Observe the past two hundred years where the voices of people of color, women and other minorities have been squashed on a day-to-day basis for speaking their minds, for disagreeing and contradicting the status-quo.
Today, the ideas of cancel-culture, as well as Republican-led restrictions imposed in public schools, continue to distort the truth. It’s not a liberal versus conservative issue; the truth is that it is difficult to speak your mind anymore without fear of cancel culture’s impact.
Dictatorial regimes across the world have used censorship to squash threatening ideas as the first step followed by more control in people’s individual lives. They feared the ideas in the novels, and the fear got out of hand. As history has proved again and again, fear leads to control. The public school system is, overall, a government agency.
When a government agency decides that it has the power to determine what information a person has access to based on one person’s personal beliefs, that is when the exchange of free ideas is killed.
We must, with a steadfast will and determination, stand against all sources of governmental restrictions of the free flow of ideas. We must learn to love criticism, for it is the greatest guide we have to advancement.
The ban of free literature is the first step to the death of free, independent ideas in a democracy, and it is imperative that we as students stand up to this. As the founders of this country urged, we must fight for “freedom for the thought we hate.”