Censorship is defined as, “[T]he suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.”
In Colonial America the threat of censorship was primarily the punishment of newspaper editors and pamphleteers who wrote against the British government. In one such case, in 1734, Andrew Hamilton defended a New York City printer who had published against the corrupt governor of New York. In the trial, Hamilton famously said, “truth cannot be libel.”
Against this background, the very First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Despite these explicit protections, there have been repeated attempts to censor speech. Shortly after the adoption of the Constitution, Congress passed the short-lived “Alien and Sedition Acts” that punished certain speech against the President and Congress. Similarly, during the First World War another Sedition Act prohibited speech against the war effort. Both wartime laws expired after the war.
The Smith Act of 1940 which prohibits the forceful overthrow of either U.S. or state government was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court since it also prohibits “advocating” for such overthrow.
In the lead-up to the Civil War, we saw a different form of censorship. Advocates for the freedom of slaves in the south were using the U. S. Mail to send pamphlets to people in the slave states. The Postmaster General used his control of the postal service to block delivery of these materials from 1830 until the outbreak of the Civil War.
Prior to this, the federal government had not used its power to address public morals. This dark chapter in American history showed how a neutral delivery platform could be used to mute one side of a debate on public morality. The fact that it came down on exactly the wrong side of the debate stands as a stark reminder that those who wield the most political power will not reliably wield that power for good.
While the various sedition acts suppressed speech by punishing it after the fact, the Postmaster’s censorship worked to prevent and restrict speech before it could be heard. This second form of censorship is far more insidious than the first.
The threat of punishment may discourage speech, but it cannot muzzle it. Those with courage to speak out can still do so and defend themselves in court. But censorship that prevents certain words from being heard is impossible to counter. A courageous speaker is simply de-platformed and unable to speak. Meanwhile the audience has no way of knowing either what they have not been allowed to hear or that they have not been allowed to hear it.
Why is free speech important, in the first place? Speech is vital to human thriving because human beings are rational beings. We are designed to speak and hear, think and reason. We are not ruled by our instincts, but by our minds. How we think has a direct bearing on our wellbeing.
Wrong thinking causes misery. Right thinking causes us to thrive. Getting the wrong information has the possibility that it might lead to false thinking and human misery. But the inability to get the right information will most certainly do so. That’s why the censorship of right information is a greater threat than the dissemination of false information. The First Amendment allows for all speech — even wrong speech — to make absolutely sure that the truth cannot be silenced.
Since 1982, the American Library Association (ALA) has collaborated with the American Book Sellers Association and the National Association of College Stores to promote a Banned Books Week each September. This annual observance calls attention to books that are morally objectionable, and shames parent- and citizen-groups who have asked for them to be kept out of the children’s and Young Adult section of the library.
For the ALA, parents who would like the library to be an environment that protects children from the pervasive sexualizing of our culture are the enemy. Their annual conference in June included numerous workshops on how to thwart and circumvent guidance from their own patrons on what they would like to see on library shelves.
Meanwhile, the ALA website that promotes Banned Books Week is utterly silent on the most powerful form of censorship that the world has ever seen. Amazon.com, the world’s largest retailer of books, began banning books with specific content beginning in March of 2017. The first general category of banned books was “revisionist histories” of the holocaust.
Then, early this year Amazon banned books from a number of white nationalist authors. By March, it had banned a book by Tommy Robinson, a conservative British activist. Shortly after that, it removed numerous books that raised concern about vaccines. Most recently, in early July, Amazon banned all books written by Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a psychologist who has written books on how to help people struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction.
Notice the pattern. The first books to be banned were by fringe authors who taught a version of history rejected by almost everyone. Then, almost two years were allowed to pass. This let Amazon customers adapt to the new normal.
With this groundwork laid, Amazon coordinated the next batch of bannings with the de-platforming of Alex Jones, a fiery speaker known for some wild conspiracy theories. While having a far wider audience than holocaust deniers, people loosely categorized with him were relatively easy targets who could not mount much of a pushback.
Next came Tommy Robinson. He is closer to the mainstream, but not known well enough to cause much stir. Next to be banned were the anti-vaxxers. Most recently, the axe came down on a respected psychologist who has died and is unable to defend his name. Who will be next? And where will it end?
You may not agree with any of the authors who have been banned so far. Still, you should be concerned by what Amazon has not banned. Are books promoting pedophilia and violence less troubling than books against vaccinations and holocaust denial? Amazon apparently thinks so since it has defended the former by the First Amendment while banning the latter.
While the U.S. Constitution allows falsehoods to be spoken so that truth is not accidentally silenced, Amazon bans acknowledged truth to ensure that falsehood is promoted. That’s not a very endearing quality in a bookseller.
Thankfully, most of the books Amazon bans are still available from their nearest competitor, Barnes & Noble. Still, they are substantially more difficult to obtain—especially for those who live far from the city. Worse, those searching Amazon’s site, while unaware of their book-banning, will never even know what information is being withheld from them.
What can you do? First, learn for yourself which books Amazon has banned. Second, let them know what you think. Third, patronize sellers that still understand and support the First Amendment.
Finally, you might ask your local library to raise the alarm during this September’s Banned Book Week. Sadly, the ALA has remained silent in the face of Amazon’s censorship. In so doing, it has become complicit in the very book-banning that it decries.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.