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EDITORIAL: The freedom to read

Books have been challenged many times in the past

This week is Freedom to Read Week, a time for Canadians to think about topics including censorship, freedom of expression and freedom of information.

The week, which runs Feb. 21 to 27, 2021, is organized by the Book and Periodical Council and is held each year in February.

The freedom to read is not an abstract concept. Over the years, there have been efforts to challenge a wide variety of books on the shelves.

The list of challenged works in quite lengthy and includes literary classics, nonfiction works and religious scriptures.

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In 1998, a case involving the 1990 children’s book, Asha’s Mums, was taken to the British Columbia Supreme Court. In 1991, Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird were both targeted for removal from the recommended reading lists in New Brunswick. The reason was because of racist content. In 1994, a petition was circulating in Alberta to remove John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel, Of Mice And Men, from schools in that province. A similar effort occurred in Manitoba in 2000. Steinbeck’s novel has come under fire because of the language in its dialogue.

Other works to come under criticism have included Final Exit, by Derek Humphrey, a 1991 book about assisted suicide; The Satanic Verses, a 1988 novel by Salman Rushdie; and Madonna’s 1991 coffee-table book, Sex.

And today, there are also efforts to discredit certain news media publications by labelling them as “fake news.”

While we have the freedom to read in Canada, and while book challenges have not been successful here, they show there are efforts to suppress certain works.

There is nothing new about efforts to ban, suppress, destroy or discredit books or other publications. Examples of censorship can be found throughout history.

In Canada, there is freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but there are some limits.

Child pornography, hate speech and libellous and slanderous content are prohibited. Outside of such limits, Canadians have the right to voice their opinions and to read or hear the opinions of others, even when such opinions are unpopular.

However, our present freedom of speech and freedom of expression should not be seen as unshakable. The book challenges that have occurred in the past should serve as reminders that there are some who would limit our freedom to read and our freedom of expression.

— Black Press

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