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Opinion: Who gets to decide what our children (and we adults) read?

There were nearly 1,300 demands to censor library books and resources in the U.S. in 2022USA Today.

The town of Rochester isn't very far from us. It's just over the bridge. For over a year now, Rochester has been going through a process that's been happening all around the country. Concerned citizens have been showing up at school board meetings and, in some cases libraries, to demand that books about racism and sexuality — especially about the sexual lives of young people — be removed from the shelves. In several states now, teachers can be fined, fired and even jailed for discussing topics of racism, bullying or human sexuality.

We've all seen glass-fronted wooden boxes that look like birdhouses, filled instead with books that people can borrow, keep or offer favorite books of their own for others to read. The term for these is “little free libraries.” Sometimes these are located out in front of local libraries. Usually, they sprout up like mushrooms, spontaneously - the result of private initiatives by local people who love to read and love to share.

Last June, a group called Tri-Town Against Racism created three “Little Free Diverse Libraries” in nearby Marion, Mattapoisett, and Rochester. By “diverse,” the group wanted to make books available that focused on issues of diversity: racial, sexual, and ethnic. As with all libraries big and little, interacting with them is voluntary. Nobody is compelled to open one of those little glass doors. Nobody is compelled to take out a book or read it. But when somebody posted a little rainbow flag on one of the boxes, the town ordered it removed. Then, while the subject was under discussion, others demanded that the book boxes be removed entirely.

The town had already been undergoing similar discussions at Old Rochester middle and high schools as a number of books had been challenged there, including "The Bluest Eye" (Toni Morrison), "The Hate You Give" (Angie Thomas), and"Out of Darkness" (Ashley Hope Pérez). In the end, after a thorough vetting of a group of books, the school district elected to keep them all on the shelves, right where they were.

In 2017, Amanda Gorman was named the first National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States. In 2021, she became the youngest poet to write and read her work at a presidential inauguration. But after a parent objected, Amanda's celebrated "The Hill We Climb" was removed from the shelves of a Florida middle school for being objectionably racist and inflammatory. Textbooks in several states still mention Rosa Parks but have removed any reference to racial prejudice as having anything to do with her story.

Rochester, situated in a liberal state like ours, may be congratulated for holding the line against local censors, but let's face it; we all know what's coming. So let's step back from the arguments about wokeness and look instead at the larger issue of censorship itself. The fundamental argument for censorship is that there are things that we can read or view that are fundamentally corrupting to our morals or to the moral development of our neighbors or children. So, in the name of protecting public morality, the censor demands the right to decide what will be available for the general public to consume. It's for our own good, and presumably, we'll thank them for it later.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General organized what was known as the Meese Commission to study the effects of pornography. A year later, the 12-member committee published a 1,960-page report that called for, among other things, further study. What interests me here is that if would-be censors are right, a year-long exposure to pornography of all types should have so corrupted the 12-person committee that they would have been running amok in the streets of Washington. They shouldn't have been able to help themselves. In fact, nothing of the sort occurred — after a year of exposure. Well, then.

When people assume the mantle of public censor, what they're really telling us is that they can read and view questionable material with impunity. It's the rest of us they just can't trust to be able to do the same.

In the name of liberty, they insist on their right to deprive the rest of us of our free choice to decide what to read, what to look at and what to think. Our children — and adults for that matter — are not empty vessels waiting for someone to open the lid and insert their own thoughts and feelings. We're all subject to influence of course, but in the end, so long as we are free to do our own looking and thinking, we are quite capable of observing the world and drawing our own conclusions. If democracy is not founded on this insight, it has no foundation at all.

Lawrence Brown is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times. Email him at column


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