Launched in the fall of 1981, Banned Books Week is intended to make the public more aware of the frequent challenges to the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and press. This celebration of the First Amendment is the product of a joint effort by the American Library Association (ALA), American Booksellers Association, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Association of American Publishers, American Association of Journalists and Authors, and National Association of College Stores.

Each year, the last week of September is designated Banned Books Week. Organizers choose a theme related to the First Amendment that is also designed to promote reading. In 2002, for example, the theme was “Let Freedom Ring: Read a Banned Book.” For its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2006, Banned Books Week adopted a carnival motif with the theme “Read Banned Books: They’re Your Ticket to Freedom.”

Each year, the ALA sends libraries around the country a kit (three posters, a hundred bookmarks, a button, and a resource guide) to use in promoting Banned Books Weeks. Local librarians also come up with their own ideas. For example, in 2004 one library chose to wrap banned books in underpants to honor Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series. Reactions to the display varied. Some parents objected to the banning of the books; others were offended that underpants were used in the display.

Supporters of the First Amendment have long realized that the unrestricted freedom to read material of one’s own choosing is essential to democracy. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, believed that freedom of speech was the central element in combating tyranny. Jefferson ran into censorship in 1814 when a bookseller refused to sell him a banned book by a French writer about the creation of the world.

A matter of intellectual freedom

Guided by the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual, Banned Books Week seeks to promote two basic democratic tenets: freedom of conscience, including the right to express individual views in any format, and unrestricted public access to library materials of all kinds. Organizers do acknowledge that parents and guardians have the right to exercise control over their own children, but they do not accept censorship of other people’s children.

Most books are challenged rather than banned outright. Challenges generally originate with parents, but they also may come from churches and community groups. Between 1970 and 1990, the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association reported that over six thousand books had been challenged. In 2005 most challenges centered on homosexuality, sexual content, offensive language, unsuitability for a particular age group, and violence.

Over the years, banned and challenged books have ranged from the Bible to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and the American Heritage Dictionary. Currently, the most challenged books are those in British author J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series about a young wizard. More than 200 million copies of the Harry Potter books have been sold worldwide, while engendering a controversy that has swept up even the pope and heads of government.

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