Censoring Books Violates Human Rights

September 25, 2022

By Orion Hower ’24

Dr. Knox and Orion Hower

Dr. Knox and Orion Hower

Albion College had the honor of hosting Dr. Emily Knox as a guest speaker on September 15 in recognition of Banned Book Week. Dr. Knox is an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on intellectual freedom and censorship practices, information access, and information ethics. In her talk, which centered on why books are banned, Dr. Knox outlined the reasons books are banned and in so doing highlighted several reasons why censorship is a violation of human rights.

Censorship of books denies people information and is used to control access to knowledge. It is a practice driven by individuals, institutions, and states (government officials) that see books as powerful tools, are threatened by that power, and are fueled by anxiety. Censorship practices violate Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 guarantees freedom of opinion and expression which includes “the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” By purposely restricting the information available to the public, people and institutions that censor books violate this right.

Censorship practices are interconnected with identity. Censors target women and children based on an assumption that they lack critical thought. Censors assume that kids will mimic anything they read and therefore should not be exposed to books that reference drugs, alcohol, LGBTQIA+ identities, and violent historical topics. Censorship directed at women stems from the sexist belief that women will be corrupted by what they read. Dr. Knox noted that many public libraries carry thrillers and horrors books (genres targeted toward men) but do not carry erotica (a genre targeted toward women) and highlighted the gendered nature of reading in this context.

Another way that censorship practices are driven by identity is through the erasure of minority stories. Book bans are largely directed at minority authors, particularly authors of color and LGBTQIA+ authors. Dr. Knox explained that through a practice called¬†Comparable Reading Experience¬†minority group stories are compared to one another, implying that all stories from a single minority group are the same. This erases groups’ ability to have individual narratives, and to hear and tell unique stories. Specifically, this impedes the fulfillment of Article 19 – the ability to seek, receive, and impart information. By blocking stories and banning books, censors prevent minority authors from imparting knowledge. And, by removing these books from bookshelves, choosing not to buy them, or restricting who can read them, censors restrict the reader’s ability to seek and receive information.

Censorship of books also violates Article 2 and Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 2 prohibits discrimination and Article 7 requires equal protection for all, “All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” By specifically targeting books and information that is geared toward or tells the story of a specific identity group, censorship also has a discriminatory effect. Identity based censorship is a discriminatory act. Groups that are disproportionately targeted by censors include, but are not limited to women, Black people, LGBTQIA+ people, and indigenous populations. The theme here is that all of these groups are minority groups, or groups that are not dominant in American society. Dr. Knox shared that books geared toward male audiences or telling the history of white people are hardly ever challenged.

Orion Hower ’24 is a Theatre major and Political Science minor from Columbus, Ohio. They are a researcher with the Albion Human Rights Lab.

The views expressed here are their own and do not necessarily represent those of Albion College.