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Banned Books Week: Celebrating free expression and the open flow of information

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association

It's Banned Books Week! An annual event held in the last week of September, Banned Books Week seeks to draw attention to books being banned or challenged in libraries and schools while promoting free and open access to knowledge.

Here at EFF, we're celebrating Banned Books Week by revisiting our favorite banned and challenged works and checking out some of the texts at issue in important First Amendment cases. It's directly in line with our work fighting for your rights to free expression and open access to information.

Supporting a movement to call attention to book bans is important, because librarians are often the first line of defense against attacks on intellectual freedom, whether these attacks come in the form of censored speech, invasions of privacy, or restrictions on finding information. EFF recognized that role in 2000 with a Pioneer Award dedicated to "Librarians Everywhere." And libraries and schools are especially vital resources in communities where individuals rely on public computers for access to information, or where students want to explore issues they may feel uncomfortable discussing with adults.

In the US, attempts to ban books have often been found to violate the First Amendment and the rights of the students to access information. They amount to censorship that directly contradicts the spirit of learning and engagement that make libraries so valuable.

These challenges are not just an artifact of the past. The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom collects reports of challenges and publishes a list of the top ten most challenged works every year. Each year, they receive hundreds of reports, but 85% of challenges and bans are thought to go unreported.

Just this year, a high school principal canceled the school's summer reading program rather than have students read Little Brother, EFF Special Advisor Cory Doctorow's bestselling young adult novel about challenging a dystopian surveillance state. Though it was published in 2008, elements of the book are scarily prescient given what we now know about mass surveillance technologies. It's an especially apt text for sparking discussion and thought in the context of our current national and global conversations about surveillance and the rule of law, but the principal was concerned about its supposed lauding of questioning authority and “hacker culture.”

To see that sort of argument in 2014 is disappointing. But fortunately, it's easier than ever to learn about this censorship and route around it. Cory and his publisher, Tor Books, publicized the censorship and sent 200 copies of Little Brother to the school, but it's also available for purchase or even free download from his site.

Care to join us in celebrating Banned Books Week? Go ahead and read a new banned book or reread one of your favorites, then check out the great resources and activity ideas available at the Banned Books Week and ALA sites. You can also fight against censorship and for open access in libraries and schools by asking your librarian about filtering software on library computers and signing our Open Access petition.

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