Sponsorship, Not Censorship, is the Real Issue Behind 'Book Banning' | Opinion

The mounting hysteria over a purported plague of "book banning" stems in part from the common confusion between government sponsorship and government censorship. A refusal to use public resources to promote and distribute a certain work doesn't amount to its suppression, or represent in any sense a threat to free expression.

Take, for example, a recent piece in the New York Times hailing "The Most Banned Book in the Country": Gender Queer, a graphic memoir in comic book style. The article fails to mention that efforts to limit public access to the work in question have failed miserably; it remains widely available in every corner of the nation, riding high on bestseller lists at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The school boards, administrators and parent activists who have objected to the book's use in curricula or its presence on school library shelves say they're troubled by its salacious elements, not its sympathetic treatment of a bisexual, nonbinary protagonist. Jennifer Pippin, a Florida nurse who leads a grassroots organization known as Moms for Liberty, insists: "It's not a First Amendment issue, this is not going against L.G.B.T.Q. groups, we're citing it for sexually explicit content." Particularly controversial are drawings of nude characters in a wide variety of sexual scenarios, with images of masturbation, menstrual blood and a sequence showing the main character and a girlfriend "experimenting with a strap-on sex toy."

Pointedly, the many fights across the country regarding Gender Queer don't involve its placement at a local bookstore or even a public library, but focus instead on the very different setting of public middle and high schools. In other words, this "most banned book in the nation" hasn't really been banned at all, at least not in the classic sense.

The term "Banned in Boston," deployed from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, referred to concerted (and often successful) efforts to prohibit sale, distribution or exhibition of books, films, plays and even popular songs that moral crusaders of Massachusetts deemed questionable. Chief among them was the irrepressible, implacable Anthony Comstock, who labored for decades to impose limitations on the public's consumption of written material with "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" elements. The Comstock law of 1873 made it a federal crime to use the U.S. mail to transport any publication with such dubious features. With these standards in mind, Boston officials notoriously banned works by four American Nobel Prize-winners (William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway and Eugene O'Neil).

Elementary school library shelf
STAMFORD, CONNECTICUT - AUGUST 31: Bookshelves of library books stand reflected in the media center of the Newfield Elementary School on August 31, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. The school library, like many around the U.S., will be largely closed to students due to the coronavirus pandemic. Stamford Public Schools is opening the fall semester using a hybrid model, although many families have chosen the distance-learning option. John Moore/Getty Images

No one can claim comparable distinction for Maia Kobabe, 33-year-old author of Gender Queer, nor have the critics of her work ever attempted to replicate the sweeping restrictions that arrogant censors inflicted in the past.

The confusion between imposing censorship and denying sponsorship also complicated culture war battles of past decades, including the heavily publicized 1989 skirmish surrounding the celebrated art photograph known as Immersion (Piss Christ). The oversized image featured an otherworldly vision of a crucifix submerged in a large container of the artist's urine. Though the creator of this unconventional icon, Andres Serrano, insisted that as a lifelong Christian he meant the picture as an act of homage, its worldwide display provoked cries of "blasphemy" and led mobs of faith-fueled zealots to vandalize the piece in France. In the United States it naturally became a political issue, with condemnations by Senators Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Al D'Amato of New York leading an angry chorus of disapproval.

What troubled conservative politicos the most wasn't the existence of the image but Serrano's use of government funds to promote it—the artist had received $15,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to honor his achievement. Already rich and famous at the time of the controversy, Serrano hardly needed taxpayer backing to continue his polarizing work; he went on to contribute cover art for the "thrash metal" band Metallica and other cutting-edge ensembles. In other words, the dispute over Piss Christ focused not on the artwork's message, but on a government agency which encouraged and rewarded a flamboyant gesture that a significant segment of the public found gratuitously offensive.

The same pattern applies to current squabbles over educational curricula or the inclusion in school libraries of books that discomfit a sizable portion of the parent body. The objections to Gender Queer and other literary or historical works don't amount to book-banning, let alone book-burning. It's not the graphic novel's mere existence that provokes protests, but the implicit assertion by school bureaucrats that this unconventional memoir provides an essential, appropriate element in the education provided by public middle and high schools.

If administrators and school boards disagree with that judgment, it hardly threatens the vigorous freedom of expression that continues to characterize our culture. After all, if you're yearning to savor the rewards of Gender Queer, or to share them with your offspring, it remains astonishingly easy to secure your own copy (or copies) and to receive them in the U.S. mail—with no modern-day Anthony Comstock threatening to interfere.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.