Editor's Introduction

"The First Amendment:
Protecting Us Against Our Own Worst Impulses"

Ken Wachsberger

The First Amendment is the greatest vision America has given to the world. The First Amendment right to freedom of speech and religion has inspired dissenters and nonconformists everywhere. Censored writers such as Salman Rushdie, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have looked to our country's example for strength as they battled for their right to express their own thoughts, and that of others to read them, even at the risk of their lives.

My family and I visited Europe for the first time recently. While in Germany, we happened to park on Avenue of the Jews. I didn't know if the street's name was a vestige of Nazi anti-Semitism, a memorial to victims of the Holocaust, or simply a record of those who used to populate the neighborhood it traversed, but I remained disconcerted even as I visited a Jewish temple that had been rebuilt by a Christian community after being destroyed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht.

We did not travel to Iran, but it is not necessary to have done so to have heard of the fatwa, or religious interdict, against Salman Rushdie and his novel The Satanic Verses. Delivered in 1989, the fatwa amounted to a death sentence against the author, who has lived in hiding ever since. Even though the fatwa was officially lifted in 1998, religious conservatives have resolved to carry it out.

In Bangladesh, feminist columnist and author Taslima Nasrin has had bounties placed on her head for her uncompromising stand against patriarchal religious traditions that she sees as oppressive to women.

Americans live in relative freedom. Yet censorship also has been a menace throughout U.S. history, from the time of Roger Williams and other early colonial freethinkers. Southeast Michigan, where I live, recently experienced embarrassing spectacles of First Amendment repression by left- and right-wing advocates. In Ann Arbor, members of a welfare rights organization claiming to speak on behalf of liberal members of the community threw stones at members of the Ku Klux Klan. In neighboring Belleville, science teachers were forced to tear pages with references to abortion from science books.

The latter is an example of social censorship, the prohibition of ideas that make some people uncomfortable. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was censored by the Alabama Textbook Commission in 1983 because it was "a real downer." Portions of the book were cut by her Dutch publisher because of references to her menstruation and a friend's growing breasts.

Many of our richest literary works—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Catch-22—have been censored at one time or another. Advancing technology has provided more diverse targets—the record, film, and television industries and the Internet—for school boards, local governments, religious fanatics, and moral crusaders to take aim at as they work to restrict free expression and the freedom to read, watch, and listen, in order to shield their children, and you, from original or disturbing thoughts.

Fortunately our country has a strong tradition of fighting censorship. Groups such as the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union, the PEN American Center, and the National Writers Union exist to defend the First Amendment and writers' rights, through legal action and by raising public awareness. They deserve our moral, political, and financial support and membership.

The four volumes in the Facts On File Banned Books Series add to that rich tradition by spotlighting more than four hundred works that have been banned or censored for sexual, social, political, or religious reasons. Each book is discussed individually through summaries of its contents and censorship history. 100 Banned Books contains twenty-five selections from each of the four volumes in one softcover trade edition.

While many of these books have been legally "banned"—prohibited "as by official order"—all indeed have been banned in a broader sense: targeted for removal from school curricula or library shelves, condemned in churches and forbidden to the faithful, rejected or expurgated by publishers, challenged in court, even voluntarily rewritten by their authors. Censored authors have been verbally abused, physically attacked, shunned by their families and communities, excommunicated from their religious congregations, and shot, hanged, or burned at the stake by their enemies.

The over four hundred works in this series include novels, histories, biographies, children's books, religious and philosophical treatises, poems, polemics, and other forms of written expression. It is illuminating to discover in their histories that such cultural landmarks as the Bible, the Koran, and the Talmud, and the greatest classics of world literature have often been suppressed or censored from the same motives, and by similar forces, as those we see today seeking to censor such books as Daddy's Roommate and Heather Has Two Mommies.

Every American reading these volumes will discover cherished books and will be thankful that the authors' freedom of expression and our own freedom to read are constitutionally protected. But at the same time, how many will be gratified by the cruel fate of books we detest? Reader-citizens capable of acknowledging their own contradictions will be grateful for the existence of the First Amendment and will thank its guardians, including the authors of the Facts On File Banned Books Series and 100 Banned Books, for protecting us against our own worst impulses.

(Adapted from editor's introductions to the Facts On File Banned Books Series and 100 Banned Books)

close window