If you didn’t know this week is Free Speech Week and I celebrated it by catching up with my friend and local author Hugh Vandivier. He recently made a powerful expression for Banned Books week and spent the entire week “imprisoned” in the Vonnegut Memorial Library to raise awareness around censorship. You can read the summary of our conversation with the best parts below or you can listen to a podcast of our entire conversation.
Matt: Why in heaven’s name did you just spend an entire week in the Vonnegut Library?
Hugh: The key was to try and raise awareness… The deal was a commitment by me to live in the library window 24/7 for an entire week. I went in on Sunday Sept. 22nd at noon and didn’t leave until Saturday at 5pm when the library closed. They had a webcam on me the whole time which was a little unnerving. The stunt was to raise awareness. I think the biggest question people had when they came into the library and were engaging me in my little ‘cell’ behind a wall of banned books was, ‘They’re still banning books?’ YES, absolutely they are. In fact the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. There was a school district in North Carolina which had just voted to yank Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. That’s what we’re up against, yeah. The Wednesday I was in the library, however, the school board by a split vote rescinded the ban on it.
Matt: You have already mentioned Invisible Man, I was also very taken back by the list of books, some books that I never figured would be banned in America. Was there another book that particularly stood out to you?
Hugh: Well there hasn’t been one reason to ban a book… Not all books are banned, some are challenged, a lot are not shelved and we sort of lump them all together in the phrase banned books. The one that really struck me as the most absurd had to be To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite books. To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned because it has racism in it. (Exasperated laughs) Which is kind of the point!
Do you feel that censorship is still an issue today in 2013? Do you feel most citizens know what the law is around censorship?
Hugh: Yeah I don’t think they really do. The First Amendment has been modified by Supreme Court decisions and precedents; there is a good bit of reason involved there. There’s the decision that said you are not allowed to yelling fire in a crowded theater and causing a riot when there isn’t one… within reason. We live in a country with a good sense of free speech, but at the same time there is a certain consideration when you’re talking about schools and children being exposed to certain materials. It was surprising to a lot of people who came into the library how many children’s titles and children’s books have been banned. And of course because that’s where the culture wars are being fought, that’s where people feel we shouldn’t expose our kids to this kind of stuff. I think it’s people from both sides too. I want to really make that point too, it wasn’t a liberal/democratic thing and it wasn’t a conservative thing, it was for all points of view.
Hugh: I think the takeaway and the action item should be that when this comes up in your community, your family, your school, your church group or whatever, that’s when you need to take that stand and say that this isn’t right. Sometimes it can be very upfront and sometimes it can be very subtle when books are challenged. It can be one person standing up in a meeting and saying this isn’t right. Chris Finan when he came and spoke that Wednesday night… he gave a speech on that assault on young adult titles and he said nothing is more effective than getting up in a school board meeting and saying this isn’t right. It goes a lot farther than a parent or an adult doing it. That’s a great action item for everybody, so that anybody can stand up and say this isn’t right…
This week is free speech week and you have talked about this all already, but sum it up a bit and what does free speech mean to you on a personal level?
Hugh: Free Speech is the key to a great democracy. The fact that we are able to question our authority makes it harder for that authority to be autocratic over us. That’s a cornerstone of our democracy. If you notice what happened with the Arab Spring a couple years ago when the uprisings started, the first thing the rulers did was shut down the TV stations and the newspapers anything that wasn’t controlled by the government, the government took over… I especially think in this atmosphere we’re living in right now, with this caustic us vs. them atmosphere in DC, that’s a case too where we need to have better pleas for openness and dialogue. Too many times people try to shut down an opinion that they don’t agree with and this shows a great insecurity of their own opinion. In the free market of ideas, if you opinion is challenged you can make it stronger by the challenge rather than weaker.
Are you or someone else going to do something next year to top your imprisonment?
Hugh: I am open for somebody to do this next year… It falls in that category of a great thing that I’ll never do again.
For more information on Free Speech Week go to http://www.freespeechweek.org/. Or if you want some great inspiration watch this phenomenal scene from Field of Dreams to get your free speech juices flowing.
Matt Impink is a former US History Teacher and Education Policy Advocate. He is currently a Graduate Student at IU’s School for Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) in Indianapolis and currates the Civic Blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @mrimpink.