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The Times
  • Kent Bush: Celebrating the freedom to read

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    This week marks the 30th celebration of Banned Books Week. People who celebrate banned books don’t love immoral literature or hope for a society given to serving its most prurient interests. The concept of free speech means that we support each other’s right to be offensive as long as laws aren’t broken.


     

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    The freedom of speech is a founding principle in America.
    However, some limitations have been accepted. You can’t publish lies, incite a riot or participate in other activities in which your free speech is detrimental to others in your community.
    For three decades, the American Library Association has fought against requests to ban books.
    This week marks the 30th celebration of Banned Books Week. People who celebrate banned books don’t love immoral literature or hope for a society given to serving its most prurient interests.
    The concept of free speech means that we support each other’s right to be offensive as long as laws aren’t broken.
    For some time, Justice Potter Stewart had written the defining Supreme Court opinion about where that line between offensive and obscene was drawn.
    “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ("hard-core pornography"); and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that,” Justice Stewart said in the 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio.
    “I know it when I see it” is a difficult rule to follow. The implicit intimation is that all of us have our own definition of obscenity and thus, no limitation would be legally possible.
    But less than a decade later in Miller v. California, the court offered what is still the governing policy on which material is so offensive that the First Amendment can’t protect it.
    In Miller, the court put forth a three-pronged test to determine is material is truly obscene and worthy of censoring. The court said material crossed the legal line when:
    - The average person, applying local community standards, looking at the work in its entirety, appeals to the prurient interest.
    -The work must describe or depict, in an obviously offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions.
    - The work as a whole must lack "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific values."
    That rule is also anything but concrete. But in giving control to local community standards, the court was intentionally vague.
    Because obscenity is still basically in the eye of the beholder, there are hundreds of requests each year to eliminate books from the public libraries and school systems. Everything from “To Kill a Mockingbird” for racial overtones, to “The Hunger Games” for references to the occult have been targeted by those who wants the books off the shelves.
    Standing up for those works that come under attack expand our freedoms as Americans.
    We should not celebrate those who appeal to prurient interests. But we have to take the personal responsibility to keep our loved ones from being negatively affected by offensive material rather than asking others to do it for us.
    Page 2 of 2 - I wouldn’t ask you to read a book on the Banned Books list today, but I would ask that you celebrate the fact that they have the right to be offensive.
    Kent Bush is the Augusta (Kan.) Gazette publisher, a columnist and blogger for GateHouse Media. He can be contacted at publisher@augustagazette.com.
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