Claudia Johnson is a nationally recognized advocate for free speech, author of Stifled Laughter: One Woman’s Story About Fighting Censorship—nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1994—and winner of the inaugural PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award for her “extraordinary efforts to restore banned literary classics to Florida classrooms.” Fulcrum Publishing has just released a new edition of Stifled Laughter because, the publisher says, “the book is even more relevant today” and they “want to introduce the book to a new generation of readers.”
Here’s a heartening statistic—80% of Americans are opposed to book banning, according to a 2022 CNN poll. But there’s a disheartening gap between the 80% of us wanting book banning to stop and the stark reality that it’s raging across our country, worse than it’s ever been. We 80 percenters clearly have the conviction that book banning should end—and the power to end it, given our sheer numbers alone—but we need to convert our conviction into effective action.
So I asked my son, Ross, who has lived through the censorship wars with me, “What’s the most important thing I can say that would inspire others to fight book banning?”
“Show up,” Ross said. “The folks who show up are the ones who get heard.”
He knows what he’s talking about. Because he’s witnessed the profound difference it makes when we show up and speak out—and when we don’t.
In March 1986 in Lake City, Fla., where my husband and our two children were living at the time, a fundamentalist preacher, Fritz Fountain, demanded that the Columbia County School Board ban the state-approved high-school humanities textbook because two selections, Lysistrata and “The Miller’s Tale,” in his opinion, promoted women’s lib and pornography.
I was stunned, outraged, that anyone would recommend banning these glorious comedies—my two favorite classics. Reading “The Miller’s Tale” when I was 14 is the reason I’m a writer today, and Lysistrata, in my opinion, is the finest stage comedy ever written.
Three other parents, Monya and Jim Virgil and Susan Davis, were also outraged, as Susan told me when she called and said, “Well, what are we going to do?”
At the school board meeting on April 22, we were the only people on our side of the room. Fountain and his flock filled theirs. Superintendent Silas Pittman said he agreed with the review committee’s recommendation that neither selection be banned, then recommended cutting both from the textbook or banning it entirely because Lysistrata took the Lord’s name in vain.
I pointed out that the Lord in question was Zeus, so Christians need not be offended, but the board voted unanimously to ban the textbook. All copies were confiscated and locked in the high school book room. Without a text, students watched movies, including Jaws and Ghostbusters, the latter of which is laced with the f-word—and takes the Lord’s name in vain.
A number of people in town told us they were shocked by the ban but refused to show up and speak out at the next school board meeting. As Susan wryly summed up their reaction, “Short of doing something, what can we do?”
And the pall of orthodoxy descended. One high school teacher said, “I’d like to teach To Kill a Mockingbird, but I know I don’t dare.” A middle school English teacher said she wouldn’t teach literature anymore. “My students just do grammar.” And the popular humanities course was canceled.
Sickened by what we saw in Lake City, my husband and I moved to nearby Live Oak where we had great friends and no books had been banned. Until 1991 when another fundamentalist, Zeke Townsend, demanded that the Suwannee County School Board ban Of Mice and Men.
I thought, Not again!
“Now remember,” my husband said, “the root word in fundamentalist is fun.”
That got me laughing and restored my perspective. And this time I was smarter. I made a long list of like-minded people in town—friends, parents, teachers, librarians—and they were willing to show up and speak out at the school board meeting, where we packed our side of the board room. Across the aisle, Townsend led his faithful in a raucous revival-style attack on the book that ended when he sank to his knees and talked to Satan through the floorboards.
When it was time for our side to speak, we did—one powerful appeal after another to reinstate Steinbeck. One of the most compelling came from Suzie Tuttle, our daughter’s sophomore English teacher. She spoke directly to Townsend, reminding him they were fellow farmers and friends. Her appeal to their common past had a disarming effect on him and his followers, like Scout in front of the lynch mob in that often-banned book To Kill a Mockingbird: “Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?”
“I want my daughter to read Of Mice and Men,” Tuttle continued. “I want my daughter to be able to experience the freedom of choice. And I request, I request, that the school board maintain the freedom of parents to choose by reinstating Of Mice and Men.”
When it was my turn to speak, I kept it simple—school budgets were shrinking. Steinbeck was paid for. The four conservative board members smiled—common ground! And I quoted an academic coordinator at Florida State: “In high school, if students are told how to think and what to think, when they get to college and a teacher says, ‘What do you think?,’ they’ll be lost. College is hard enough without limiting their exposure to a broad range of books and ideas in high school.”
I looked at the board. “If Mr. Townsend wants to limit his children, that is his choice. He has no right to limit mine.”
And because so many of us showed up and spoke out, the board voted unanimously to reinstate Steinbeck.
The same was true in Virginia Beach at the school board meeting on October 26, 2021, when more than a dozen high school students showed up and spoke out passionately about the difference the six challenged books had made in their lives—Lawn Boy, Gender Queer, A Lesson Before Dying, The Bluest Eye, Beyond Magenta, and Good Trouble. They even held a rally outside, which prompted one right-wing book banner to shout in dismay, “They’re organized! They have a Facebook page!”
All six books were reinstated.
So Ross was right. The most important thing I can say to inspire others to fight book banning is show up. And speak out. Because, as I’ve learned again and again in the book-banning wars, the answer to less speech is more.
If speaking out sounds too scary—and I know it can be—remember that it’s not just books under attack. It’s public education. And democracy itself. Then take a moment to contemplate what it will be like if our democracy is destroyed, and we no longer have the right to speak out. Then pick up your phone and start calling others opposed to book banning and ask them the question Susan Davis asked me: “Well, what are we going to do?”