Censorship, Banned Books, and Intellectual Freedom

Prepared for the Annual Conference of the New Mexico Library Association
April 22-24, 2009, Albuquerque, New Mexico

By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Scholar in Residence, Western New Mexico University; Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System—Sul Ross

Member Intellectual Freedom Committee, New Mexico Library Association

The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association defines “intellectual freedom” as “the right of any person to believe what he [or she] wants on any subject and to express his [or her] beliefs orally or graphically, publicly or privately, as he [she] deems appropriate . . .  with total and complete freedom of access to all information and ideas regardless of the medium of communication used” (Agee in Brown, 53).

The motto of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance” is an apt maxim for our times in the face of efforts from a number of quarters to curtail intellectual freedom. Everywhere the shadow of censorship casts a pall on the free exchange of ideas and their publication. Some of the world’s extraordinary literary texts have been censored on any number of grounds. We don’t know where censorship was first practiced historically but, no doubt, it came into being when the “ideas” of one person clashed with those of another or when one person objected to being characterized a particular way by another (Ortego, “On Censorship,” 5).

In general, censorship is the action of one person or group stifling the expression(s) or action(s) of others. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates laid out a plan to censor the reading of Athenian youth to insure their correct education. Censorship thus seeks to control “correct” thinking. Extremes of censorship imprison objectors and destroy or suppress materials outside accepted norms. Other forms of censorship are manifest in the control and dissemination of information—for example, textbooks that present only the dominant view of their society; or media controlled only by a particular group in a society. Censorship may take the form of regimentation, requiring all people to conform to a single tenet.

The word “censor” came to English from the Latin “censere”—to value or judge. In ancient Rome, censors regulated the morals of citizens and had the power to inflict public punishment or ignominy (censure) on offenders. With the advent of writing, print in particular, censorship has come to be identified more as restriction on reading. For example, under a 1944 Pennsylvania law defining libel as a publication “tending either to blacken the memory of one who is dead, or the reputation of one who is alive,” Henry Clay Frick’s daughter filed suit in Pennsylvania in 1967 to halt distribution of the book Pennsylvania: Birthplace of a Nation by the historian Sylvester Stevens on grounds that it contained defamatory statements about her deceased father, the Pennsylvania coal tycoon. Defamation of the dead was considered a crime in many states then. In 1969, Cumberland County Judge Clinton Weidner ruled that Stevens’ book was protected as free speech.

With the advent of film, “obscenity” and “pornography” have become larger considerations in censorship—the limits of “offensive” material. Ovid’s love poems were censored in Rome on grounds that they incited lust in their readers. Films are rated on their “offensiveness.” In the United States, the Supreme Court test for censorship requires: (1) that the work appeal to the prurient interest of the reader, (2) offends community standards, and (3) has no redeeming social value.

As social standards change so does the precept of censorship. One era’s obscenity becomes another’s titillation until finally such tempests come to be regarded as quaint. This is not to diminish genuine social concern for moral and just behavior. At odds with this concern stands the equally pressing concern for the free thought and expression of the individual—is there reconciliation?

In the gamut of these concerns, Supreme Court rulings have held that the limits of free expression can be bounded by libel and slander; that the limits of access can be bounded by government interest—security clearances or relocation of Japanese Americans, as examples. The crux of censorship is, then, the extent of harm and extent of government interest. These are not easy limits to define. For example, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said of free expression, “No one is free to stand in a crowded theater and yell fire,” just as today no one is free to make bomb jokes aloud in an airborne plane.

For all of us and especially the information professions, the issue of censorship is significant. For publishers, one of the key documents in the freedom to print [imprimatur] is John Milton’s Areopagitica, a speech delivered to the English parliament in 1641 beseeching restitution of the freedom to print books without government permission. For American newspapers, the first amendment to the Constitution is crucial to their interests—Congress shall make no laws restricting freedom of the press.

By and large, the evolution of American law has safeguarded publication of books and newspapers and exhibition of films. Erosion of that law comes from quarters that seek to suppress, extra-legally, distribution of publications and films [and now recordings] deemed by them as offensive. Many religions have published [and continue to publish] lists or indexes of books their adherents may not read. Special interest groups seek to intimidate publishers with boycotts; school districts, with political reprisals; individuals with anathema.

What is the role of the individual and the information professional in this issue? The question augurs no easy response. It is safe to say, however, that, at the very least, all of us would be better served in the preservation of intellectual freedom if we knew the general history of censorship and the general tenor of laws that govern its dynamics. We are all members of social groups; none of us are independent pillars. More often than not, common sense and vigorous defense of the Constitution are the best posture.

As parents, however, we can all point to some books we don’t want our children to read. In Plano, Texas, in 1991, African American parents protested the required reading of Huckleberry Finn on the grounds that the work is racist and not at all the simple satire of the hypocrisy of racism as many defenders of the work attest. In her defense of the text, Dr. Jocelyn Chadwick Joshua, an African American herself, explains that “African Americans need to deal with issues of race” (Ortego, “Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: Racism or Censorship?”(1).

The African American parents were not asking that the text be removed from the library or that it be prohibited reading, only that in the name of cultural sensitivity the text not be “required reading” for African American students at Plano High School—this is not to say African American students there may not read the text, rather that African American students ought not be “compelled” to read it. The solution to make the text “optional reading” seemed to be a workable solution without censorship.

Published in 1884, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned numerous times on social grounds. The Concord Public Library called the book “trash suitable only for the slums,” when it first banned the novel in 1885.

Texts like Huckleberry Finn are often pressed on students in classes of literature on the grounds that they are “great literature” of “have withstood the test of time.” That’s how Chaucer and Shakespeare have become the gold standard of English literature. To say that African Americans can benefit from reading Huckleberry Finn as Dr. Chadwick-Joshua contends is a matter of opinion.

The “great literature” contention holds that texts somehow inhere qualities that apotheosize them over time. Chaucer and Shakespeare are writers whose works have been apotheosized without reconsideration of how” great” [or good] their works really are. By agreement and tradition Chaucer and Shakespeare are automatically part of the Anglo-American literary canon, just as Twain is now part of the American literary canon while many black writers—until recently —have not been part of that canon because there was no “canonical consensus” about their works.

I cannot say I did not benefit from reading Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona and John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flatthough both texts treat Mexican Americans abominably (Ortego, 1973). I would not abide their being “required reading” for Mexican American high-school students. Not on grounds that they are not “great literature.” For they are not, in my opinion. Like Huckleberry Finn, Ramona and Tortilla Flat are full of stereotypes about Mexicans and Mexican Americans. I do not discourage Mexican Americans from reading those works—just not as required reading. No one expects Jewish American children to be subjected to texts that portray them stereotypically.

Cennsorship “is socially more harmful than the material it seeks to ban” (McClellan, 9). Moreover, “all censorship should be opposed because there is never any guarantee that once it is made a tool of society it won’t be used to suppress all unpopular ideas” (Ibid., 30). These are expressions from the 60s in opposition to censorship. Current expressions about censorship posit that “censorship ultimately limits language—language that could be used to further intelligent discourse. By narrowing the scope of language, censorship inevitably deprives individuals of the opportunity to generate new visions and new ideas” (Carter in Brown, 212).

According to James E. Davis, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, “Every region of the country experienced challenges [of censorship] in the 1980s, and in the 1990s acceleration of those challenges has been the pattern” (Brown, 233). Censorship is a global menace. In 1988, a fatwa (edict of death) was authorized by the Ayatollah Khomeini against Salmon Rushdie, author of the novel Satanic Verses—any Muslim was free to kill Rushdie with Islamic impunity.

In the last three decades, the onslaught against freedom of expression has been relentless. In a Boston Phoenix piece, Dan Kennedy wrote, “freedom of express may be guaranteed by the Constitution. But it’s an idea we have to fight for every day” (July 5, 2008). The head of John McCain’s presidential campaign in Rhode Island compared anonymous critics to “terrorists” (Later On, censorship-in-the-us-today/). In the United States since the 9/11 attack, Arabs in the United States have become targets of opportunity for the foes of freedom of expression. Adam Habib, an academic of Muslim heritage and critic of the war in Iraq, has been banned from speaking in Boston based on “secret” [non-existent] evidence.

Worldwide, governments are restricting the free flow of information by filtering or blocking the Internet, a venue of the “new media.” In Bangladesh, feminist columnist and author Taslima Nasrin “has had bounties placed on her head for her stand against patriarchal religious traditions that she considers oppressive to women” (Karolides, Bald, and Sova, xi). The assault on Intellectual Freedom is everywhere.

Some banned books in the United States have included The Canterbury Tales, The Scarlet Letter, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, D..H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and James Joyce’s Ulysses. In 1975, Fort Worth Public Schools forbade purchase of works by Chicanos on grounds that they fomented social revolution. One of those works was We Are Chicanos: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature which I edited for Washington Square Press in 1973.

In 1975 the Fort Worth Public Schools banned some twenty works by Chicano writers, using the justification that those works were not “fit” or “appropriate” for the students of the Fort Worth Public Schools. The list of banned books included works by such well-known Chicano writes as Jose Antonio Villar­real, Ernesto Galarza, George  Sanchez, Americo Paredes, Julian Nava, Rudy Acuña, Rolando Hinojosa, Ricardo Sanchez, and Felipe de Ortego y Gasca. Why, I wondered, were the works of these writers not “fit” or “appropriate” for the Fort Worth Public Schools?

I called the Superintendent of the Fort Worth Public Schools to find out why. He reacted defensively and queru­lously, saying he didn’t think it was any of my business since I wasn’t a resident of Fort Worth. [I was then Associate Publisher of La Luz Maga­zine in Denver, the largest circulating monthly Hispanic public-affairs magazine in English in the country.]  Adverse publicity and pressure from the Mexican American community of Fort Worth reversed that decision. But I daresay that the reasons for banning the works of those Chicano writers from the Fort Worth Public Schools grew out of the fact that the Chicano realities depicted in those works did not mesh with the realities about Chicanos held by the Anglo Fort Worth Public School officials. 

Indeed, the banned Chicano books refuted the lies told about Chicanos and enshelved in the libraries of the Fort Worth Public Schools,. They refuted the institutionalized stereotypes by which Anglos came to think they knew Mexican Amer­icans. That’s why they were not considered “fit” and “appropriate.” The depictions therein about Chicano realities by Chicano writers were at odds with what the Fort Worth Public Schools had come to believe were the realities about Chi­canos. Yet the books which have promulgated the most meretricious of lies about us were not removed from the shelves of the libraries of the Fort Worth Public Schools. Those works were deemed “fit” and “appropriate” to remain.

From 1966 to 1975 I was fortunate to be one of the Quinto Sol Writers, a vanguard group of the Chicano Literary Renaissance which gave voice to El Grito: Journal of Mexican American Thought, first independent publication for Chicano literary production. In 1970, Quinto Sol Publications established El Premio Quinto Sol (first literary prize for Chicano writers) equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize order to recognize Chicano writers who as a group had been excluded from public literary awards by the American literary mainstream.

In 1972 Rudolfo Anaya was the second Chicano to be honored with the Premio Quinto Sol for his novel Bless Me, Ultima published by Quinto Sol. Bless Me, Ultima has become an enduring Chicano classic. In 1972 who of us involved in those nascent efforts in Chicano literature would have thought that 22 years later Bless Me, Ultimawould be the focus of censorship by two school districts in Texas—Round Rock ISD and Fort Stockton ISD—on grounds that the book contained profanity and witchcraft.

Censorship is a delicate issue. Admittedly, there are books we don’t want our children to read. Yet, in the public forum, “speech” (including books as an expression of speech) is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. There is nothing in Bless Me, Ultima that violates the Supreme Court criteria for censorship (prurient interest, community standards, and social value). Bless Me, Ultima continues to crop up on lists of contested works for inclusion in public libraries and high school reading (Ortego, 1995, 2).

In the Fort Stockton situation, Roberto Rodriguez and Patrisia Gonzales—syndicated columnists for Chronicle Features—reported in their column on the matter that the high school teacher of English who was using Bless Me, Ultima in her Freshman English class was “taken aback when her school superintendent ordered her to pull the book from her Freshman English class” because of parent complaints. “But this is the premier Chicano writer in the nation,” she told the superintendent. That didn’t matter he said (1). Bless Me, Ultima was on the American Library Association’s 100 Banned Books List for 1990-1999.

To the censorship of Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya has responded that “censorship is a response to fear of difference.” Indeed that is at the heart of censorship and the banning of books. But equally insidious is the locus of control censorship seeks as part of hegemonic power exercised by the center of social systems.

Note: This text is an updated and expanded version of “On Censorship” by the author published in the REFORMA Newsletter, March 1995 when the author was Editor of the Newsletter. REFORMA is the National Association for Library and Information Serves to American Hispanics, an affiliate of the American Library Association.


Agee, Hugh. “Literature, Intellectual Freedom, and the Ecology of the Imagination,” in Preserving

Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools, Edited by Jean E. Brown, National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.

Brown, Jean E. Editor. Preserving Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.

 Carter, Lief H. “Mind-Control Applications of the Constitutional Law of Censorship in the Educational Environment” in Preserving Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools, Edited by Jean E. Brown, National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.

Davis, James E. “Afterword” in Preserving Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools, Edited by Jean E. Brown, National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.

Karolides, Nicholas, Margaret Bald & Dawn B. Sova, 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature. New York: Checkmark Books/Facts on File, 1999.

Kennedy, Dan. “Silencing Free Speech,” Boston Phoenix. July 5, 2008.

Kennedy, Dan. “Silencing Free Speech,” The 11th Annual Muzzle Awards, Boston Phoenix, July 5, 2008.

McClellan, Grant S. Editor. Censorship in the United States. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1967.

Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de. “Fables of Identity: Stereotype and Caricature of Chicanos in Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat,” Journal of Ethnic Studies, Spring 1973.

Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de. “Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: Racism or Censorship,” Forum on Racism in American Society, Texas Woman’s University, March 17, 1991.

Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de.  “On Censorship,”  REFORMA Newsletter, March 1995.

Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de. “From the Editor: Chicano Literature and Censorship,” REFORMA Newsletter, March 1995.

Rodriguez, Roberto and Patrisia Gonzales, “Censorship in America: Bless Me, Ultima Banned,” REFORMA Newsletter, March 1995.

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