It’s Freedom to Read week, so everyone should run to the local library and check out the selection of banned or challenged books. Why read a banned book? Because we can never take our freedom to read for granted. According to the Freedom to Read website,
“Even in Canada, a free country by world standards, books and magazines are banned at the border. Books are removed from the shelves in Canadian libraries, schools and bookstores every day. Free speech on the Internet is under attack. Few of these stories make headlines, but they affect the right of Canadians to decide for themselves what they choose to read.”
Being a Canadian university press means that we ship books into the US frequently. On one occasion our books were stopped and held at the Canada–US border, for no disclosed reason, enroute to a conference. They never did make it, and my colleague was forced to stand behind an empty table for a few days. On another occasion a mainstream American religious magazine refused to run an ad for one of our books. The fear of freedom of thought is rampant in many parts of the world, and those of us who enjoy that freedom need to cherish it and fight to retain it.
Books and magazines that have been challenged in Canada have invoked ire for a number of reasons, including depictions of sexuality, magic, the inclusion of racial epithets or racist views, the denunciation of religion, or an alternate recounting of disputed history or political situation. Many of these challenges involve what we teach to our children, but increasingly there have been attempts to control the message in post-secondary education as well. Rather than through the banning of books, this has happened through the barring of speakers because of protest by a group with a conflicting interest.
Most recently US scholar Dr Norman Finkelstein was forced to move his lecture on Israel–Palestine relations off campus when Mohawk College imposed an extra security charge in response to protests from Jewish groups. An article in the Exchange reports that this approach has been common at universities lately that have used the excuse of increased security to deny speakers an on-campus venue. The group sponsoring the event, the CJPME, is “considering legal action to recoup losses and inconvenience related to Mohawk College’s breach of contract.”
In January 2009 respected scholar Bill Ayers was denied entry into Canada because of an arrest and conviction in 1969 related to an anti-Vietnam-War protest. He was scheduled to lecture at University of Toronto’s OISE on teacher activism, and faculty at that organization decried the Canadian government for not allowing him to enter and for preventing the performance of “one of the core duties of university life: freely exchanging ideas in a public forum.” Calling it an “attack on intellectual exchange and academic freedom,” the letter goes on to say, “A university has an intellectual obligation to provide fora that encourage honest debate of diverse opinions; the same must be said of a true and vibrant democracy.”
These are just two of the many instances where talks (from all points on the political spectrum) have been cancelled, ostensibly due to security concerns but many times related to pressure from one powerful group or another. We must find a way to combine the right to peaceful protest (to avoid the necessity of prohibitive extra security costs) with the right and responsibility of the university community to provide a free and public exchange of ideas.