[Cross-posted on The Agitator.]
Julian reminds us that it’s Banned Book Week, and then he observes that the American Library Association’s definition of a “challenged” book is rather broad, spanning everything “from someone demanding that a book be pulled from the shelves of a town's public or school library, to parents complaining to a teacher that their child's a bit young yet to be assigned Book X.” The latter is presumably a good deal more justifiable than the former.
Julian hopes that attempts to pull books from the shelves are “pretty much always unsuccessful,” and I’m with him. But I wonder if opposing such removals is effective in the long run. Removing books from the shelf and never putting them there in the first place are functionally equivalent policies, at least for sufficiently attentive school boards. And scarcity of funds and space means the acquisition process is unavoidably discriminatory; including some books means excluding others. If free-speech advocates successfully stymied all attempts to remove books from library shelves, I suspect it would have an almost negligible impact on the diversity of reading material in public libraries (except for older volumes that were “grandfathered in”). All the banning action would shift to the acquisition front.
All of which emphasizes, I think, the importance of Julian’s brief asides about school choice (“Insert requisite if-only-we-had-vouchers line here,” he says parenthetically, and later, “it'd sure be nice if parents had more options for putting their kids in another school when they had such serious problems with the curriculum”). Freedom-of-expression isn’t really about having a comprehensive pornography collection in every public library; it’s about being able to choose the kind of library (or book store) you want. In the educational context, it means being able to choose the sort of school that maintains the kind of library collection you think appropriate for your own children, without forcing that same choice on other children. The one-size-fits-all public school system makes that kind of choice impossible.