Interview with Kathleen Newman, Professor of Banned Books

It may come as a surprise that, even in this day and age, books are still being challenged and banned across the United States.

Kathleen Newman, associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon, spoke at the University of Pittsburgh on the topic of banned books and how this practice still persists today, despite the alleged freedom of information. I had the opportunity to interview her after her talk, and she explained not only the history of banned books but the persistence of the issue.

Professor Newman told me the story of a banned books case in 1975 that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Members of a school board attended a conservative group conference and were handed a pamphlet with 33 objectionable books. Nine of these books were found in the local libraries, and the board members took the books out of the library, deeming them inappropriate for the students to read. In retaliation and in defense of their freedom to access information, a group of high school students sued the school district. The Supreme Court ruled in the students’ favor, stating students should not have to sacrifice their First Amendment rights when they walk through school doors. This decision, along with the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, formed a foundation for librarians to protect books, in a struggle that continues to this day.

Despite the Supreme Court’s decision, Professor Newman stated that many groups continue to challenge people’s access to books. Most notably, these books are “either about diverse people or by authors with materials that challenge the mainstream society.” She estimates that there are more than 10,000 challenges to different books and other media each year. The process for banning books goes as such: after a book is challenged, a committee is assembled to review the book and make a decision. While most books that are challenged are not taken out, a few extreme cases have passed. One notable example is the removal of the Harry Potter series from a Tennessee Catholic school in Sept. 2019. The school priest decided the spells in the books were real and could allow readers to conjure evil spirits, citing exorcists from the United States and Rome.

Newman said the history of banned books cannot be discussed without mentioning Judith Krug, the forerunner in challenging book banning and the founder of Banned Books Week. At the 1982 American Bookseller Association Book Expo, Krug presented a display of banned books in large, padlocked metal cage. Krug’s exhibition sparked the initiative known as Banned Books Week, with the joint efforts of Krug, the American Bookseller Association, and the National Association of College Stores bringing awareness to banned books. The 1980s saw a huge spike in challenges to books after the election of Ronald Reagan, with conservative groups mobilizing in the 60s and 70s to circulate banned books lists.

I asked her about what she believes to be the most important takeaway from Banned Books Week. Professor Newman expressed her desire for everyone to understand that the culture of banning books continues to exist. “Most people would say, ‘books aren’t banned anymore.’ On one hand, we’re better off in this country than maybe some others… But if you live in a small town and someone challenges a book, you might not have access to that information.”

Banning books remains a powerful attempt to take an idea out of circulation, and it would be a “mistake to think it is a problem of the past.” Thus, Banned Books Week is a way to remember its prominence and to prevent the problem from getting worse. While Carnegie Mellon provides students with the freedom to access all books, it is crucial for students to remember that not everyone has the same privileges as us.

For more information about Banned Books Week, which runs from Sept. 22 to 28, or banned book culture in general, visit ala.org.