A ‘Freedom to Read’ Campaign Amid US Censorship

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Seventy years after being written, the ‘Freedom to Read Statement’ has been reissued amid efforts at book bannings in the United States.

Image – Getty iStockphoto: Thankful Photography

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Essential to Our Democracy’
There was a great flurry of messaging in the United States book industry over the weekend, with publishing people urging each other to sign a reissued “Freedom to Read Statement” that originally was created in 1953, during the McCarthyist era of hysteria over “communist subversion.”

Meanwhile, at least one publishing journalist, observing both the mounting attacks on free expression in the States and the industry’s reactions, is saying that the book publishing industry “has been a little late to the issue here.”

With the American Libraries Association meeting in Chicago through Tuesday (June 27), that organization and the Association of American Publishers (AAP)—which together created and published the original Freedom to Read Statement 70 years ago—have worked with the Authors Guild and the American Booksellers Association to create a new campaign.

This is in reaction to the waves of book-censorship efforts that have swept the States as far-right political dynamics in the world’s largest book market have sought ways to exert influence and challenge constitutional norms. While some of this can be observed in other world markets, the bulk of it is generated in the authoritarian currents that began rising with new force during the election and administration of Donald Trump.

For our readers not in the States and not following closely the progress of this debate, we’ll bullet out how the newly arrived “Freedom to Read” campaign is structured as a framework meant to prompt much greater resistance to censorious efforts than has yet been mounted.

The newly re-released Freedom to Read Statement is found on an American Library Association site, UniteAgainstBookBans.org. The logic there is that librarians—especially those who work in school libraries—are the ones placed on the front lines of the rights’ efforts to pull books off shelves. In many if not most cases, book-banning efforts in the United States are being mounted in local educational districts. Parents or organizations will charge that certain books present to young readers various values with which they disagree, and they often mount intimidating efforts to have school boards and those libraries remove those books.

At launch, we’re told, the campaign had 125 organizations and publishers and 830 authors as signatories. How much the issuing of statements can move the needle in political and civic settings is a matter for debate, of course, but it’s a primary activity for many organizations.

One of the most recent of our many stories about this issue was published here on June 2, when we outlined the American publishers association’s newer court actions with other organizations in censorship efforts in Arkansas and Texas.

As you’ll recall, we’ve  noted at several points that AAP president and CEO Maria A. Pallante told the main-stage audience at London Book Fair in April that some of the most severe assaults on freedom of expression and the freedom to publish in the American market appear to be starting “in the provinces,” as it might be said in Europe. After all, the US Constitution is housed in the federal framework. So actions often hostile to the public’s right to read what it chooses are surfacing first in state, municipal, and/or county jurisdictions far from the nation’s Washington-based federal center.

In discussion around the Freedom to Read campaign, you’ll see references to a new report, “Unpacking 2023 Legislation of Concern for Libraries” (PDF), released this month by the non-partisan EveryLibrary organization, which is “dedicated to building voter support for libraries.” In its self-descriptive material, EveryLibrary writes, “We are chartered ‘to promote public, school, and college libraries, including by advocating in support of public funding for libraries and building public awareness of public funding initiatives.'”

And in its precede to the EveryLibrary report, you see a quick quantification of exactly what the AAP’s Pallante was talking about in London: “The recent wave of state legislation affecting libraries across the United States has been largely negative, with a focus on restricting access to certain materials, particularly those deemed harmful or inappropriate for minors. Through June 17, 2023, 24 bills have passed in state legislatures. Two were vetoed, and 22 are in various stages of enactment. These bills have been enacted in fourteen states.”

The Freedom To Read campaign is a response to exactly that. At the site, you can read a brief opening statement the point of which is, “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack.” You can then read the original statement, become a signatory, see who else has signed the statement, and you can share this with others.

‘Now in the Game’

Some thoughtful commentary on the issue was heard Friday (June 23) in the weekly commentary of Publishers Weekly‘s Andrew Albanese. An attorney by background, Albanese went over some of the court action in the field with Christopher Kenneally of Copyright Clearance Center’s “Velocity of Content” podcast.

Andrew Albanese

What Albanese is pointing out in this instance and in some of his recent writings is that the real point is “whether government officials have the unchecked power to simply ban books from libraries that they disagree with”—not definitional questions about what constitutes “obscenity.” In the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ considerations in Little v. Llano County (Texas), Albanese points out that a bad decision in that appeal “could imperil some long-held constitutional norms, which could take years to sort out.”

That concern, of course, is part of what’s motivating this Freedom to Read campaign led by several critical chief institutions in the industry. The national mood in the farthest recesses of the political right is to try to avoid due process and constitutionally mandated democratic principles and simply take books off shelves or demand that librarians and other school officials do it.

Albanese, however, goes on, in his commentary at Velocity of Content, to make an observation that speaks to the understandable urgency with which you see these organizations  putting together this campaign.

“I’m speaking more personally here than from my esteemed employer.” he says. “But I’ve been hearing for some time now about how the publishing industry has been a little late to the issue here, which is unfortunate because this is an issue that is fundamental–as the freedom to read and write is fundamental to the industry. Publishers have long been supporters of the freedom to read. But I think a lot of us in the industry have come to take it a little bit for granted. Too many of us have come to believe that the kind of threat we’re seeing today really couldn’t happen here.”

He points to a shift of attention at the Association of American Publishers toward copyright policy in recent years over the freedom to read. And he does this not by way of looking for scapegoats but to demonstrate the point that the industry may be on its back foot as these challenges mount.

“I don’t think anyone five or six years ago,” he says, “could have expected what’s happening today with the freedom to read,” he says, “so I’m not leveling blame. … But in hindsight, I think it’s pretty obvious now that laying down arms on this issue has sort of green-lighted the attacks that we’re seeing today. And in the EveryLibrary report, I think it becomes pretty clear: This has to be fixed, and it really can’t be allowed to happen again.”

‘The Right To Make Up Our Own Minds’

From left, Tracie D. Hall, Maria A. Pallante, Allison K. Hill, and Mary Rasenberger

The leadership of the four key organizations behind the Freedom to Read campaign–Tracie D. Hall, executive director of the American Library Association; Allison K Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association; Maria A. Pallante, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers; and Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild–have issued a joint statement, reading:

“Seventy years ago, fear, suspicion, and suppression fueled by McCarthyism was at a fever pitch—a serious situation that required a robust and vigorous affirmation of intellectual freedom and the constitutional protections that protect it.  Today, as we grapple with a new wave of censorship in schools, libraries, and bookstores targeting a wide range of expression, including fiction and nonfiction, the Freedom to Read Statement remains an important defense of the freedom to write, publish and inquire.

“Our democracy is based on the belief that every person’s right to read is indispensable to their personal and political pursuit of happiness. This fact is indisputable.  American democracy has always depended on the lawful dissemination and rigorous protection of speech—from all political quarters and all personal perspectives, both old and new ideas.

“To be clear, not every expression of authorship will withstand the rigorous and sustained scrutiny of the marketplace of ideas, but our free society requires that we have the right to make up our own minds about what we choose to read and what we think of what we’ve read.  As our predecessors stated in 1953, “Americans do not need others to do their thinking for them.

“As we celebrate this anniversary, we are mindful not only of the rights of readers, but of the nation’s authors, publishing houses, bookstores, and libraries, whose missions both reflect and are in service to our free society.”

And at PEN America, the current president, Ayad Akhtar, has been joined by the living past presidents in endorsing the Freedom to Read Statement.

Aktar says, “Efforts to suppress ideas are inimical to democracy in its truest sense. We need to be clear-eyed about these threats, forthright in calling them out, and willing to defend against them. If we expect to understand—let alone practice—responsible citizenship, we owe it not only to our young people, but to ourselves to stand for the freedom to read. At stake is our democratic future, and the time to act is now.”

Past PEN America presidents joining Aktar are Kwame Anthony Appiah, Louis Begley, Ron Chernow, Joel Conarroe, Jennifer Egan, Frances FitzGerald, Peter Godwin, Francine Prose, Salman Rushdie, Michael Scammell, and Andrew Solomon.

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel says, “The freedom to read is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy and a thriving society. The drafters of the Freedom to Read statement put forward a ringing endorsement of this principle, forcefully rebutting the varied excuses for curtailing the individual liberty to explore books and words. The call to action they issued 70 years ago, as the McCarthy-era Red Scare emboldened censorshipis as urgent today as the day it was drafted.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the freedom of expression and freedom to publish is here, more on the United States market is here, more on politics is here, and more on censorship is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.