Founded in 1922, PEN America has long been considered a bastion of free expression in the United States. The organization professes to hold tight to the virtue of writers freely expressing themselves, without the fear of censorship:
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.
However, it appears that PEN America does not have a sufficient grasp on the important distinction between true censorship and age restriction.
The Wall Street Journal published a report in 2022 that described a study carried out by PEN America that suggested that 2,532 books were banned in public schools across the country in the 2021–2022 academic year. But it turned out that PEN America’s report was inaccurate. According to online card catalogues, 74 percent of the books the organization claimed were banned were not actually banned.
However, there are at least five books from the report that appear to have been banned in public schools: Gender Queer, Flamer, Lawn Boy, Fun Home, and It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health. From the titles alone, we could surmise that at least a few of these may not be appropriate for school children.
Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, seemed to have the same view as PEN America, tweeting in April that “over 50% of the attempted book bans last year involved books with LGBTQ+ characters & themes.” The tweet was subsequently subject to a Community Note on the platform that stated: “‘Gender Queer’, the book shown in the photo, features sexually explicit material. This book contains visual depictions of oral sex, masturbation and adult sexual contact with a minor.”
Another book that has been banned in public schools is Flamer, which reportedly contains masturbation in it and has been condemned as pornographic by parents in Dearborn, Michigan, per the New York Post. The book is apparently a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Mike Curato. Instead of being marketed toward mature audiences, the book has been directed toward children in schools.
The report noted that one parent decided to read a passage of the book in front of the school board, showing the extremely sexual content that the book contains.
It is not difficult for any reasonable person to conclude that books containing pornographic or explicit material are not age-appropriate for children in school. This conclusion is not the same as banning a book, even if PEN America claims that it is. A true book ban means that a work in question is, by law, disallowed in any sphere of public or private life. For instance, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky just passed a bill barring all Russian and Belarusian books from being distributed in Ukraine.
Additionally, PEN America seems to commit a semantic sleight of hand when attempting to define a book ban on their website. Under the header “What Is a Book Ban?” the organization says the following:
PEN America defines a school book ban as any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges … that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished.
What PEN America attempts to do is conflate a “book ban” with a “school book ban,” which are not synonymous terms. Because a book is considered inappropriate for underage consumption does not mean that it is not available. It just means that it is not available to children within a school building. Book chains like Barnes & Noble have not suddenly stopped selling these works; they are not only available in such stores, but they are often put on display.
We may be able to see the contradiction a bit more clearly by briefly looking to the world of film. In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) implemented a rating system for films that would allow parents to assess which productions might not be appropriate for their child. If there is a sexually explicit scene in a movie, it is going to receive an “R” rating, meaning that no one under the age of 18 will be able to see it without parental approval.
Those who are not in school are free to read Gender Queer or Flamer, and I am sure there are children who find ways to read this material independent of the school library. But this material should not be made available to youth through public schools, which are considered an arm of state and local governments.
I believe one possible solution to the book-banning issue is to introduce a similar rating system to the MPAA. It would also be necessary for the panel to be composed of a diverse group of writers and readers. Otherwise, the rating system would be at risk of being monopolized by left-leaning actors who believe that pornographic material is permissible for state and local governments to make available to children.
Such a rating system can help us begin to solve this problem, but unless our culture takes a hard look at what freedom of speech means, we will continue in these dire straits.
One only has to look to the attacks on J.K. Rowling over her critique of transgender ideology to see the strange redefining of free speech. Rowling is by no means a conservative, but her position on this issue has subjected her to quite the witch trial. If PEN America—or any other organization decrying “book bans”—purports to stand for free expression, why haven’t they taken a stand in support of Rowling’s free speech? Why haven’t they spoken out in defense of other writers who have faced cancelation or censorship for voicing opinions?
As I previously wrote for Intellectual Takeout:
To truly be in favor of free speech means that we must be willing to protect someone else’s right to speak their mind, especially if it is something we disagree with. If we only apply free speech to the ideas that we support, we are no better than the most draconian despot in history.
If organizations denouncing censorship only support freedom of speech for some people, do they really support freedom of speech? Are actual book bans acceptable if they only apply to ideologically unpopular books?
These are questions that our culture is once again grappling with, and the answers will determine the future of speech in America.
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