For a full week each September, the literary community takes time to celebrate books that have been banned in the past and to talk openly about the dangers of book censorship. On the day of the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the kickoff of Banned Books Week has never been more necessary in America.
It’s true that in the United States, this yearly freak-out over book challenges often feels like overkill. For all its problems, the U.S. has a pretty good handle on the whole free speech and free press deal, right?
The American Library Association gathers data on banned or challenged books each year and spreads the word about which reads are drawing the ire of parents, local officials, and others, which always makes for a jarring set of infographics. But for a country of well over 300 million people, the actual numbers reported by the ALA aren’t that alarming. One infographic available on the ALA’s website shows statistical breakdowns of the most challenged books from 2015, who made the challenges, and what the reasons given were.
The total number of challenges in 2015, according to the graphic: 275.
And as Ruth Graham pointed out in Slate during last year’s Banned Books Week, it’s unclear if any, let alone a preponderance, of those include actual bans:
A “challenge,” in the ALA’s definition, is a “formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” By that definition, Sims’ one-woman freak-out in Tennessee qualifies as a “challenge,” despite the fact that it posed no real threat to [Rebecca] Skloot’s book, let alone the “freedom to read.”
It’s fair for Graham to have concluded that “Banned Books Week [..] traffics in fear-mongering over censorship, when in fact the truth is much sunnier: There is basically no such thing as a ‘banned book’ in the United States in 2015.”
Then Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for president.
Sure, Trump loves The Art of the Deal, his 1987 memoir-slash-business-self-help-manual ― though for the most part he doesn’t seem to like reading at all. In August 2015, as his campaign was picking up steam, he claimed in a debate that the book was his “second-favorite book of all time” ― after the Bible, of course. Still, that love didn’t prevent the candidate from threatening the book’s ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, with a lawsuit this summer after the author publicly claimed he wrote “every word” of The Art of the Deal. (Schwartz also admitted he believed the book contained self-aggrandizing falsehoods from Trump, and that he regretted being part of the project.)
But fine, Trump believed he had a contract with Schwartz regarding the book’s authorship. What about Timothy O’Brien, a writer Trump sued after the publication of his investigative book Trump Nation? O’Brien cited multiple sources close to the mogul in estimating that his actual wealth was around $150 to $250 million ― far below his own vaunted self-worth of over $4 billion. For this journalistic, er, crime, Trump sued O’Brien and his publisher for $5 billion. (The lawsuit was dismissed.)
So Donald Trump loves to sue people who write things that he wishes they hadn’t. A 2013 Atlantic article about his lawsuits documents his proclivity for legally battering people who express themselves in ways he doesn’t care for. It’s not incredibly free speech-friendly, especially since he has admitted to bringing expensive lawsuits he knows he can’t win solely to cause expense and stress to his opponents. But it’s within the bounds of legality. If a court doesn’t believe he’s in the right, he doesn’t win the case. (Indeed, he rarely does.)
But what if a man so averse to free speech becomes the leader of the heretofore free world? Here are a couple choice quotes indicating what Trump would like to do about our current speech and press freedoms:
In February, he proclaimed:
One of the things I’m gonna do if I win [...] is I’m gonna open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re gonna open up those libel laws. So that when The New York Times writes a hit piece that is a total disgrace, or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money rather than have no chance of winning because they’re totally protected. [...] We’re gonna open up those libel laws, folks, and we’re gonna have people sue you like you never got sued before.
In August, he took his loathing for freedom of the press to Twitter:
Earlier this month, he blamed “free expression” for the recent bombings in New Jersey and New York:
They’re all talking about it so wonderfully, because, you know, it’s called freedom of the press, where you buy magazines and they tell you how to make these same bombs that I saw [...] We should arrest the people that do that because they’re participating in crime. We should arrest them. Instead they say, “Oh no, you can’t do anything, that’s freedom of expression.”
As HuffPost’s Michael Calderone wrote at the time, “What’s chilling about Trump’s remarks isn’t his criticism of jihadi propaganda ― which is clearly awful ― but his casual dismissal of ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘freedom of speech,’ bedrocks of American democracy, as potentially disposable in fighting terrorism.”
For many years, the U.S. has cultivated rigorous speech and press freedoms, a culture where book banning exists only as a boogeyman for librarians and free press advocates. So comfortable are we with our carefully guarded rights that, lately, liberal college students who decry racism have been painted as the most serious perceived “threat” to free expression. By electing someone so cavalier about the nation’s most cherished foundational rights, we could risk what’s taken 200 years to build.
This Banned Books Week, share your favorite banned or challenged reads, pick up a frequently protested classic, and embrace the awareness-spreading holiday like never before. And most important, talk about what could be the biggest boon to book-banning in generations: the election of President Trump.