“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” — Aldous Huxley
Huxley would not be surprised then, that as we go to print, his 1932 novel, Brave New World, has been challenged in Delaware by a school board member who declared, “because my student is in a public school I should have some kind of assurance that they’re not going to be exposed to certain things.” The “things” that trigger the urge to censor are timeless: sexuality, religion, race, politics, violence, non-conforming science – “things” that inspire disagreement but are central to who we are, how we live, and what we think.
What began in 1974 as an “ad-hoc committee” of 23 national groups that shared a concern about the Supreme Court’s newly revised definition of obscenity, and its implications for First Amendment rights, grew into NCAC, a robust coalition of 50 organizations committed to preserving freedom of expression as a vital element of democratic society and an essential human right.
Four decades of national advocacy and local activism have taught us that the impulse to censor persists, and that there are – and will probably always be – people ready to act on that impulse. They vocally insist that their local school, library or art center should cater to their personal idea of what is “appropriate;” as government officials they misuse their position to enforce their personal views. This year, as we celebrate our 40th anniversary, we mine our own history to learn how censorship patterns have and have not changed since NCAC’s founding.
In the 1970s, the Coalition protested when an issue of Newsweek was pulled from newsstands because its cover depicted a semi-nude child, a Vietnam war victim, and when school officials removed Kurt Vonnegut’s novels from high school libraries. In the ‘80s, we opposed Reagan’s increased government secrecy and the Meese Commission’s war on sexual expression, and continued our ongoing defense of books, like The Catcher in the Rye. The culture wars heated up in the ‘90s, as legislators targeted the National Endowment for the Arts and works like Angels in America and Piss Christ. In the new century, we joined the national debate about social media and video games, campaigned for the privacy of personal communications, and countered the chilling of political dissent.
Why do you support classic literature or controversial art? Are you more concerned about an open Internet, a transparent government, or your right to protest? The following pages highlight our headline history and, we hope, help you remember a moment when your speech was chilled, or your effort to obtain information stymied, or art you valued was attacked. As a parent involved in the Brave New World challenge lamented when she thanked us for providing counsel, “Tonight I have to go back to the school board and once again defend a book that I read as a high school student in the 1970s and my mother read as a high school student in the 1950s.”
Our history teaches us that censorship endures and adapts, but so do we. The parent in Delaware proves that our individual freedoms are cherished through generations, and that free speech is forever.