by Timothy Sandefur
This week is Banned Books Week, during which we celebrate our freedom to read and take a moment to remember times and places when people have not been free to express themselves or to hear the voices of others. From Frederick Douglass’s tale of secretly learning to read, to the oppressed peoples of today’s Iran, North Korea, or China, where government rigidly censors the media, the freedom to read and to speak freely has long been a distant dream. Sadly, the United States is no stranger to censorship. Even such classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ulysses, and Leaves of Grass have been banned or removed from libraries by those seeking to control our freedom to read and to express ourselves.
Even on college campuses today, freedom of speech is at risk. Protestors have shouted down controversial speakers, engaged in violence and physical attacks, and have sought to silence rather than to debate those with whom they disagree. That’s why the Goldwater Institute proposed free speech reform legislation that protects the expressive rights of college students at public universities. Our bill forbids schools from restricting free speech, except in those extremely rare circumstances where First Amendment law already allows schools to curtail certain types of speech (for instance, in so-called “public forums,” or where limiting speech is critically necessary to protect people from injury).
Contrary to misrepresentations aired in some circles, our free speech legislation is the strongest protection for student expressive rights available anywhere. Not long ago, in North Carolina—which passed our proposal recently—students sought to protest a prominent conservative speaker who came to campus, but because they knew they would face punishment if they violated her rights, the students chose instead to hold their protest outside the venue instead of trying to shut down the event.
That’s exactly how it ought to work. Freedom of speech—as the Supreme Court once put it—means “that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks.” But those debates should always take the form of words—not violence, threats, intimidations, and disruptions that silence voices and censor full discussion.
In his classic defense of free expression, Areopagitica, published in 1644, the poet John Milton wrote that books “are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them,” because they “preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” To destroy a book was almost as bad as murdering a person, because “who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image, but he who destroys a good booke, kills reason itself.” While a person’s life can never be restored, “revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth.” Censorship, therefore, “slays an immortality rather than a life.” This Banned Books Week, we should recall his advice, and celebrate our freedom of expression by exercising it—and respecting the rights of others to do the same.
Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.