When I was a young philosophy student, John Stuart Mill’s famous maxim (that he may disagree with the content of your speech, but will gladly fight for your right to say it) made a strong impression on me. I hope that this maxim will be studied and internalized by all sorts of young people, well into the future. After all, surely everyone can recognize that freedom of speech and expression is fundamental. Right?
Well, not exactly.
Throughout the years, there have been several banned books. Some were written for adults and others were written for children. They’ve provoked outrage because their content – profane, sexual, or otherwise – has been deemed offensive. In the debate about literature and censorship, public libraries are crucial, because they are typically the institution defending the literature in question. Indeed, not only do libraries defend an astonishing breadth of material, but they ensure that the material is widely circulated within the community.
I recently heard an argument that is an extension of Mill’s claim. It goes something like this: not only should the public merely tolerate objectionable views. Rather, we ought to have them included in the marketplace of ideas for the very reason that they are objectionable. It is only through exposure to what is objectionable that we learn to discern the true from the false, and the acceptable from the unacceptable. We need to be exposed to that which is ridiculous, shocking and offensive precisely so that we can form well considered opinions; so we can examine, scrutinize and come to valid conclusions. Banning certain material from the marketplace of ideas denies us the exposure which is so paramount in developing critical, analytical skills. Not only do individuals have the right to produce offensive content, but we all ought to have the right to consume it, if we choose.
If your junior high school student is interested in the Freedom to Read, then have him or her submit an essay to the Calgary Public Library. Winners will receive a prize, and have their essay posted on our website!