Thursday, October 1, 2015

Who Bans Books? Governments

In Tuesday's post, I mentioned how the development of the printing press and the growth of the printing industry helped spread both literacy and, to the chagrin of the papacy, the ideas of the Protest Reformation. Part of the Church's response to the wider dissemination of ideas antithetical to Church doctrine was to create the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of dangerous authors and works that good, pious people should stay away from and that local authorities should bar and destroy.

The Church wasn't the only institution threatened by the burgeoning printing industry. Thanks to printing presses, writers who were critical of government could easily and cheaply distribute their gripes to waiting minds around the world.

Not that the church and the state were necessarily separate entities. In general, kings ruled by divine right, not secular right. In 1534, when King Henry VIII established the Church of England, he set the reigning monarch — himself at the time — as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. (This is still true.) Similar structures were well established throughout Europe, so that criticism of the monarch was also criticism of God, a heretical act. Nonetheless, as printing became more common, so did criticism, which rulers who wanted to retain their rules felt compelled to suppress.

And suppress it they did. One way to control the printing industry was to require licenses for printers to legally publish works. In England in 1557, the right to print was restricted to two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, and to the existing 21 printers in London. This allowed the Crown to keep close tabs on what information was being disseminated.
Governments also created laws that allowed authorities to inspect all books coming into the country, to confiscate any that did not meet "official" requirements, and even to prosecute the writers, printers, or distributors of those books that were critical of the Crown or that violated the doctrine of whichever Church the current monarch favored.

And when that didn't work, there was always prison.

In 16th-century England, King
Henry VIII always "wore it best,"
or some fashion writer went to the
Tower of London.

According to The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom, between 1661 and 1789, 683 people were imprisoned in the Bastille "for production and distribution of banned writings." Voltaire was sentenced to almost a year in the Bastille in 1717 for some of his satirical writing. Between 1774 and 1789, in the run-up to the French Revolution, almost a third of the prisoners in the Bastille had been incarcerated for composing, printing, or selling unlawful writings. Sure, many of these people were imprisoned for trying to turn a profit from lewd and lascivious writing, but their numbers did include some political Enlightenment figures, such as Jacques-Pierre Brissot and Louis-Pierre Manuel.

And you can find similar stories from other countries at that time.

Although governments over time began recognizing more and more the benefit and necessity of freedom of expression, official censorship continued into the twentieth century. I need only mention Nazi book burning; that was an extreme case. In yesterday's post, I talked about censorship by Islamic groups, and to this day, Islamic governments certainly keep a close eye on what literature they allow into their countries. For example, Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance continues to block works by James Joyce, Paulo Coelho, and Kurt Vonnegut, among others.

Here in the United States, the federal government's efforts to protect our moral purity are largely devoted to keeping obscenity out of the hands of children. Exactly what constitutes obscene writing has long been a subject for debate. Many of the rules, guidelines, and arguments we use today concerning obscenity and freedom of the press weren't codified until the 1950s and later. The landmark Supreme Court case of Roth v. The United States in 1957 let more sex into our general literature by more narrowly defining obscenity. In the opinion of Justice William Brennan, Jr.,

sex and obscenity are not synonymous. Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest. The portrayal of sex, e.g., in art, literature and scientific works, is not itself sufficient reason to deny material the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and press. Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages; it is one of the vital problems of human interest and public concern.
Before Roth, books by James Joyce, Flaubert, and many others were banned by both state and federal authorities because they contained individual sexual references — throwing out the baby with the sex-water, so to speak. This decision required that, in censorship cases, the merits of works be considered as a whole.

Strangely enough, the Roth decision ultimately upheld the conviction of a New York man for selling obscene materials through the mail.

Just a few months later, the Roth ruling was used as a precedent to exonerate Allen Ginsberg's publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti in a California municipal court. Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems and sold it through City Lights Books. San Francisco police seized the books, and Ferlinghetti was charged with willfully printing, publishing, and selling obscene writings.
Allen Ginsberg, by Supreme Court Ruling, is not just a dirty old man.

Ferlinghetti didn't go to court alone — he was backed by the ACLU — and his defense was successful. Justice Clayton Horn ruled that Howl and Other Poems was not obscene but contained "redeeming social importance," granting it protection under the First Amendment.

Censorship is still a hot-button issue in the United States and throughout western civilization today, but most legitimate cases fall under the "what about the children?!" umbrella and deal with obscenity. However, many believe that new laws designed to quell hate speech and incitement to terrorism may have detrimental effects on freedom of expression and of the press.

Our freedom to write our ideas and then send or sell those ideas to others should not be taken for granted. It isn't universally accepted, and we must be vigilant if we hope to retain it.