For a movie about baseball-playing ghosts, Field of Dreams can be very realistic. In a scene about midway through, protagonist Ray Kinsella and his wife Annie, played by Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan, respectively, attend a PTA meeting in their small Iowa town. A concerned citizen is attempting to remove a book by Terence Mann (the stand-in for J.D. Salinger played by James Earl Jones) because she characterizes it as “smut.”
In real life in 2022, all over the United States, parents and activists are raising book challenges, which are formal requests to libraries to remove or relocate books. Several school districts in Texas have removed books about racism and LGBTQ issues from their shelves.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, citing themes of gender identity and sexual orientation, signed into a law legislation that creates restrictions for books used in schools and also an objection process for parents. Tennessee’s GOP-controlled legislature passed a bill that would create a state commission that could ban books from schools.
Removal requests don’t always come from conservatives. In 2019, two Democratic legislators in New Jersey introduced a resolution to take Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn out of school curricula because of racist language.
There was even a challenge in our own state. In June, Colchester’s First Selectman, Republican Andreas Bisbikos, supposedly at the behest of a parent, had a children’s book about celebrity RuPaul removed from the children’s section of the public library without lodging a formal challenge. He claimed it was because one of the pictures in the book was sexually inappropriate and not because it was about RuPaul.
He also sought a review of all books in the children’s section. The removal was the subject of a town meeting which, although there were no reports of a person like Annie Kinsella calling anyone a “Nazi cow,” seemed lively. Most attendees and the other selectmen opposed Bisbikos, who subsequently withdrew his request.
Most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, are uncomfortable with censorship. According to a poll by the American Library Association in March, 75% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans “oppose efforts to remove books from libraries.”
The Supreme Court held 40 years ago that the First Amendment limits how school boards can remove books from school libraries. The Constitution “does not permit the official suppression of ideas,” Justice William Brennan wrote for a plurality in Island Trees School District v. Pico. “More importantly, the right to receive ideas is a necessary predicate to the recipient’s meaningful exercise of his own rights of speech, press, and political freedom.”
The stated reason for most book removals, especially those which concern sexual or social themes, is to protect children. At a time in which all sorts of material and imagery can be found on any number of electronic devices, that is unlikely. What they are likely to do, however, is to teach children undemocratic lessons: that if you do not like something, or just do not want to see or hear something, you can just block it; that you can keep others from exercising their freedoms and thinking for themselves.
College campuses have long been battlegrounds for free speech. Recently, some have come under fire for offering “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” and for speakers being shouted down by protesters and counter-protesters, an issue Pres. Obama decried at a town hall in Iowa, of all places, in 2015, saying, “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”
Participating in the marketplace of ideas, a democratic society, requires a thick skin. Removing books because you’re afraid of what they say, or more likely, who might read them and what they might learn or think, is anathema to liberty.
Chris DeMatteo is an attorney in Fairfield.