The scourge of book bans sets freedom of expression ablaze through the ages
In 1821, the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine observed, “Where they burn books, they will end up burning people”.
One hundred years later, German university students gathered in Berlin’s Opera Square and burned 25,000 “non-German” books. As the bonfire raged, 40,000 Berliners cheered when Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda henchman, declared that the Third Reich would not tolerate “decay and moral corruption”.
Fast forward 90 years: On February 28, 2022, members of Indian River County (IRC) Moms for Liberty (M4L) Chapter demanded that the IRC School Board remove 156 books from libraries because they contain pornographic passages and champion critical race theory (CRT).
The censored Treasure Coast Moms for Freedom have set their sights on authors like 1962 Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck and African-American Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker.
Two weeks later, the Brevard M4L chapter joined the blue pencil team. In a gymnastic twist of rhetoric, a spokesperson said the group was not advocating “banning the books” but simply wanted to “remove[ing] inappropriate content” from the library shelves.
Book banning has a long history in America. In 1637, Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan angered Puritans who objected to Morton’s denunciation of the Puritans’ “New Israel”. His call to “demartialize” (encourage diversity) in the English colonies and his desire to create a multicultural New Canaan led to a charge of sedition, a stay in the stocks, and exile.
Two centuries later, opponents of the 1850s version of the CRT banned the sale of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, arguing that Stowe’s pro-abolitionist agenda would corrupt young minds.
Continued: Brevard school board debates ‘pornographic’ books, may revise library policy
The appetite for book censorship was not limited to the pre-war South.
In 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Comstock Act, making it illegal to mail “lewd, obscene, or lascivious”, “immoral”, or “indecent” publications through the mail.
In 1913, Anthony Comstock, anti-vice of the law namesake and New York postal inspector, banned a pamphlet titled “What Every Girl Should Know” because it contained a discussion of gonorrhea. Margaret Sanger, the pamphlet’s author, responded that the USPS believes girls shouldn’t know anything about their bodies. A century later, it seems the intent of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law is to ensure boys and girls don’t know anything about being LBGTQ.
Continued: Multiple Florida mental health professional organizations slam so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill
Book banning reached an absurd level during the Cold War era. In November 1953, Mrs. Thomas J. White of Indianapolis, a Republican member of the Indiana State Textbook Commission, called for the Robin Hood story to be removed from school libraries.
“There’s a communist directive in education now,” Ms. Thomas explained, “to highlight the Robin Hood story. They want to highlight it because he stole it from the rich and gave it to the poor. C This is the communist line. It’s just a taint of law and order.
Ms Thomas’ red baiting prompted a swift response from the then current Sheriff of Nottingham, England, who angrily retorted that ‘Robin Hood was not a Communist’.
“The people,” said James Madison, who drafted the First Amendment, “will not be deprived or restricted of their right to speak, write, or publish their feelings…”.[these are] the great ramparts of freedom.
Fortunately, there are Americans who stand up to the moral police. Recently, The New York Times reported that a wave of parents, lawmakers and school officials were fighting back. In Ohio, a suburban mom named Katie Paris runs the Book Ban Busters. Motivated in large part by a Nashville pastor’s public burning of the Harry Potter and Twilight books, Paris said “it’s horrifying, but not surprising.”
Heine was right. Those who would ban books and restrict free speech are playing with fire. They should put away their matches and read some Steinbeck or Walker. It would do them good.
Gordon Patterson is a resident of Melbourne. A historian and former board member of the Florida Historical Society and the Florida Humanities Council, he has taught at Florida Tech since 1981.