Book-Banning, Censorship, and the Stifling of Free Expression

August 19, 2021 Updated: August 22, 2021


The American Booksellers Association (ABA) is a trade organization for America’s dwindling number of independent, non-chain bookstores. These community-based stores “serve a unique role in promoting the open exchange of ideas,” the ABA’s website declares.

Unless, it would seem, the “ideas” are deemed objectionable by the progressive powers that be. Then, the ABA switches from promoter of “open exchange” to an iron-fisted censor worthy of the 17th-century Puritans who banned all books that criticized their Massachusetts theocracy.

Nor is the ABA alone as an organization ostensibly devoted to the values of free speech and a free press exemplified in the Constitution’s First Amendment, but in actuality an enforcer of canceling whatever products of speech and press are ruled out-of-bounds by a left-leaning cultural establishment. Publishers and librarians—who also pay lip service to the First Amendment and its values—have been almost as craven.

Case in point: the ABA’s treatment of Abigail Shrier’s best-selling “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.” Shrier, a veteran journalist, cites research studies to argue that the current surge of teenage girls deciding they’re born into the wrong body and are actually boys is simply a reaction to adolescent anxieties, encouraged by social media, that doctors are grossly mistreating with radical body-altering surgeries and prescriptions of massive amounts of male hormones that can destroy the girls’ prospects for future fertility.

The Economist magazine picked “Irreversible Damage” as one of its Books of the Year for 2020—and so the ABA included the book, now in paperback, along with promotional materials paid for by its conservative publisher, Regnery, in a July 2021 mailing to 750 independent bookstores.

Within days, Casey Morrissey, a self-described “trans bookseller and book buyer” at Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore, was complaining on Twitter that the book was “anti-trans”—because it failed to adhere to the transgender-activist dogma that a person’s self-described gender is a biological reality, and if that person’s body doesn’t conform, correction by whatever medical means necessary is appropriate, even if that person is a child.

“Do better,” Morrissey tweeted on July 14, and was promptly joined by other booksellers tweeting similar sentiments. Transgender activists have already—although so far unsuccessfully—tried to pressure online retailers such as Amazon not to carry Shrier’s book.

The ABA’s apology on Twitter came within hours: “This is a serious, violent incident that goes against ABA’s ends policies, values, and everything we believe and support. It is inexcusable.”

That wasn’t good enough for the activist booksellers, however (“We’re extremely disappointed and angered to see the ABA promoting dangerous, widely discredited anti-trans propaganda,” the Harvard Book Store wrote in a tweet). So on Aug. 9, after consulting with the ABA’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee (yes, the ABA has one of those), the organization’s CEO, Allison Hill, issued a 1,400-word breast-beating statement that read like the product of a Maoist struggle session.

In the future, Hill promised, all the organization’s promotional material would be screened to exclude books exhibiting “hate speech” under the U.N.’s definition: “pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are.”

Included as an object of Hill’s abjection was a blooper that an ABA staffer had made while electronically assembling a promotion package. One of the books on the list was “Blackout,” a 2021 collection of young-adult stories by black authors about black teens who fall in love during an electrical-power outage. The ABA employee had mistakenly included a cover image of the 2020 best-seller “Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape From the Democrat Plantation” by Candace Owens, a black conservative activist. Under ordinary circumstances, the employee’s error would have been one of those things that can happen when book titles are identical and deadlines loom. But Hill, in an earlier statement (pdf), dubbed the mistake “irresponsible and racist” and promised staffers would attend “diversity and inclusion” training.

The ABA controversy over Shrier and Owens comes on the heels of other recent incidents of outright censorship in the book world. In 2018, the publishing conglomerate Macmillan took what it considered a brave stand for freedom of the press. Its then-CEO John Sargent defied a demand from Donald Trump that it halt the publication of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” a purported tell-all about his administration’s inner workings.

“We need to respond strongly … for all authors and all their books, now and in the future,” Sargent wrote.

Yet now, in 2021, a Macmillan imprint, Picador, has made it clear that “all authors” doesn’t include authors who aren’t sufficiently “sensitive” to today’s ever-changing identity politics. Picador is working with British poet Kate Clanchy to “update”—that is, rewrite—her award-winning memoir “Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me” to meet current standards of sensitivity. Clanchy’s narrative about her years as a teacher won high praise when Picador released it in 2019, but recently a Twitter mob started denouncing the book as a “racist” and “ableist” screed.

Clanchy had described some of her ethnic-minority students as having “chocolate-coloured skin” and “almond-shaped eyes” and two autistic students as “unselfconsciously odd.” On Aug. 6, Picador issued an apology and promised that the book would be rewritten in future editions. Even Clanchy herself felt obliged to join the self-criticism session: “I know I got many things wrong, and welcome the chance to write better, more lovingly,” she wrote.

Finally, there’s the American Library Association (ALA), the librarians’ trade organization whose watchword is “freedom to read.” The ALA’s “Banned Books Week” (this year from Sept. 26 to Oct. 2) focuses on controversial books that activist groups, typically on the political and religious right, have tried to get removed from the shelves of public libraries. But the ALA now has a book-banning problem of its own involving controversial books: six “Dr. Seuss” books for children written mostly during the 1950s by the beloved author and illustrator Theodor Geisel.

Some of those books—“If I Ran the Zoo” and “To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street”—have been childhood icons for generations of Americans, but Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which holds the copyrights to Geisel’s works, has decided that some of the illustrations are racially insensitive: “They portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” The company has withdrawn all six books from future publication. The ALA refuses to describe the company’s actions as censorship.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises has “not made a call for libraries or schools to remove the books from collections,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told the media. But that’s exactly what is happening in local public libraries all across America, where the six Seuss books either are no longer available or can be read only with restrictions. The ALA has yet to speak out on this issue.

If this situation seems Orwell-esque or Stalin-esque, that’s because it is. Organizations and institutions that for years have championed themselves as defenders of free expression now explicitly or implicitly support the stifling of free expression. They haven’t endorsed book bonfires yet, but they seem awfully close.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Charlotte Allen
Charlotte Allen
Charlotte Allen is the executive editor of Catholic Arts Today and a frequent contributor to Quillette. She has a doctorate in medieval studies from the Catholic University of America.