First Amendment

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.

In 1991, the United States celebrated the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, with the federal Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution declaring it to be a year-long observance. The following is from the Commission's announcement:

"The first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, were proposed by the First Congress of the United States and passed on to the states in September of 1789 for ratification. On December 15, 1791, Virginia became the 11th state to ratify the amendments, thus achieving the three-fourths necessary for ratification.

"For 200 years the Bill of Rights has stood the test of time and the stress and strain of American and World History. It has been both a beacon of hope and a model for other nations.

"As so many nations today are abandoning totalitarianism and embracing individualism and liberty, 1991 will prove to be a significant year as Americans celebrate 200 years of the Blessings of Liberty."

One of the observances during 1991 was held Sept. 28 to Oct. 5. In light of the celebration announced by the Commission, this observance was a poignant one:

"Banned Books Week - Celebrating the Freedom to Read"

The banned books, marked with a caution label declaring that "some people consider these books dangerous," were listed:

American Heritage Dictionary * The Bible * Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret * Our Bodies, Ourselves * Tarzan * Alice's Adventures in Wonderland * The Exorcist * The Chocolate War * Catch-22 * Lord of the Flies * Ordinary People * Soul On Ice * Raisin in the Sun * Oliver Twist * A Farewell to Arms * The Best Short Stories of Negro Writers * Flowers for Algernon * Ulysses * To Kill A Mockingbird * Rosemary's Baby * The Fixer * Death of a Salesman * Mother Goose * Catcher in the Rye * The Merchant of Venice * One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich * Grapes of Wrath * The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn * Slaughterhouse-Five * Go Ask Alice

Since then, various schools and public libraries across our great nation have continued to ban books - these and others - that some people in the community consider dangerous.

So far, Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" hasn't been banned. So far.

In other countries, which don't have the First Amendment, books can be banned completely from within their borders. In the 1980s, Great Britain banned "Spy Catcher," by Peter Wright - but you could buy it in America. Peter Wright had been in Britain's equivalent of the CIA and "Spy Catcher" was a tell-all book, at least Britain considered it so.

To France's chagrin, the internet recognizes no borders. On Jan. 21, 1996, France banned "Le Grand Secret," a book by Francois Mitterrand's doctor alleging that the French president, who died Jan. 8 of prostate cancer, ordered his illness concealed from the public for 11 years.

[April 3, 2005, update: None of the links about "Le Grand Secret" connect to the book anymore. It appears that it's disappeared from the 'net. I don't know whether it's gone simply because of the passage of time or through the efforts of the French government. Either way, I'm now sorry I didn't download it when I had the chance!]

An article in The Washington Post of Feb. 8 told the tale of the book's flight to freedom:

"The book, written by Claude Gubler, was published on Jan. 17 - and was banned four days later by the French government, which cited privacy concerns. But 40,000 copies had already been sold, including one to Pascal Barbraud, owner of a cyber-cafe in Besancon. He scanned it into the cafe's Web site. That site soon bogged down from heavy use, but Stephane Etienne, a French student at the University of Glasgow, managed to copy all of the 'secret' files to his own Web site. Then Declan McCullaugh, an on-line activist in Pittsburgh, copied those files to his Web page, and the book escaped the power of any authority. [In October 2001, the book could still be found on the web, at the Electronic Frontier Foundation's web site, but that link too is now 401.]

"'My fervent wish is for governments to stop imposing unduly onerous regulations on the Net and on its users,' McCullaugh e-mailed. 'I detest government censorship, even of controversial information.'"

It's ironic this story was published on Black Thursday, when webmasters across the country turned their pages black in protest of a Bill by the U.S. Congress that would restrict freedom on the internet. It was also the day that I signed up with my internet server, IllumiNet [which has since disappeared]. As I designed my web pages, I did so against a black background. They will stay this way as a reminder that, in the words attributed to Edmund Burke (1729-1797):

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

If you think banning books isn't evil, remember one of the world's most famous figures to ban books: Adolf Hitler.

For more information about protecting your rights under the First Amendment, check out these sites:
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Freedom Forum
Banned Books Week
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created Feb. 24
by Liz Lavallee © 1996
link updates added March 4, 2000; Oct. 31, 2001; and April 3, 2005