No one needs to tell Salman Rushdie about the cost of free speech.
Since 1989, Rushdie has lived in hiding and rarely spoken publicly after his book “The Satanic Verses” triggered the ire of Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who called for the writer’s death.
Protests against Rushdie’s novel ignited violent attacks against bookstores across the world, and the book was later banned in such countries as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Sudan.
Even those safety precautions were not enough to prevent a nearly fatal attack on Rushdie in the summer of 2022 while he was on stage at a literary festival in western New York. Rushdie was stabbed repeatedly and eventually lost an eye.
In his first public appearance since the attack, on May 18, 2023, Rushdie, 75, accepted an award for his courage at the annual gala of PEN America, a nonprofit literary group that is in the middle of a fight in Florida over attempts to restrict access to books primarily involving race and LGBTQ+ identities.
During his brief speech, Rushdie said the attacks on books and teaching and even libraries have “never been more dangerous and never been more important to fight.”
“Terrorism must not terrorize us,” Rushdie said. “Violence must not deter us.”
Over the years, The Conversation U.S. has published numerous stories exploring the wave of attempts to ban certain books from public schools and how those attacks on free speech teeter on the edges of constitutionality – and potential violence. Here are three selections from those articles.
1. Outdated beliefs about how children read
Trisha Tucker teaches a class on banned books at the University of Southern California and explained that attempts to ban books are “frequently motivated by misapprehensions about how children consume and process literature.”
Research shows that children’s reading experiences are “complex and unpredictable.”
“Their interpretation of books is informed by their personal and cultural histories,” she wrote, “and those interpretations may change over time or when readers encounter the same stories in different contexts.”
Book bans reflect outdated beliefs about how children read
2. A lack historical knowledge weakens a strong democracy
Since it began keeping tally in 2021, PEN America has counted more than 4,000 instances of book banning in the U.S.
Those banned books range from Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” a fictional tale of freed enslaved people, to Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl”, a nonfiction account of a Jewish girl’s life under Nazi occupation.
As director of two human rights programs at Penn State and the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Boaz Dvir knows firsthand about the danger of efforts to limit students’ access to book and courses about certain historical and societal topics.
Failing to teach about the Holocaust, for instance, “may rob students of such imperative lessons as how propaganda can mislead, grow and wreak havoc on democracy, as well as how societies and institutions can fall apart,” Dvir wrote.
I’m an educator and grandson of Holocaust survivors, and I see public schools failing to give students the historical knowledge they need to keep our democracy strong
3. When are book bans unconstitutional?
It’s hard to definitively say whether the current incidents of book banning in schools are constitutional – or not.
First Amendment scholar Erica Goldberg explained the reason for the uncertainty is due to the courts’ analyzing decisions made in pubic schools differently than censorship in nongovernment contexts.
“Control over public education, in the words of the Supreme Court, is for the most part given to state and local authorities,” Goldberg wrote.
But not all is lost for those opposed to book bans in Florida and other U.S. states.
“Even though the government has discretion to control what’s taught in school,” Goldberg wrote, “the First Amendment ensures the right of free speech to those who want to protest what’s happening in schools.”
When are book bans unconstitutional? A First Amendment scholar explains
Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.