One balmy day in Fallbrook, Calif., in the far Republican reaches of San Diego County, a book disrupted the normal flow of events. The sweet scent of our citrus blossoms did not sour, our avocado crops didn’t shrivel, nor did our town’s trademark friendliness turn nasty. What did happen was that our public county library system banned Not My President: The Anthology of Dissent (Thoughtcrime, fall 2017) from the author series I organize, hosted by our local library.
For three years, the series has featured a diverse array of passionate opinions. From works addressing racism and climate change to immigration and transgender rights (mingled with the occasional Christian poem), the readings have been rich with controversial topics, and the audiences have been generous in support of the written word, regardless of underlying ideology.
Nonetheless, having seen only the title and fund-raising site of the yet-to-be-released anthology, someone in the library system determined that Not My President was more than Fallbrook folks could bear (we are, apparently, as fragile as the exotics we grow). My request for the criteria by which the book was evaluated went unanswered. I sat under my fruit trees, stewing, and mourned that a California library system would ban a book.
I couldn’t help but wonder: Would the book have been banned if it were titled He’s My President: The Anthology of Ascent? Was it simply because it might give the faint of conservative heart the vapors? Or was something more insidious at play? Was it possible that censorship of progressive dissent has become a trend, rearing its ugly head, like the pocket gophers that ravage our Fallbrook gardens? In this time of purportedly fake news, of deceitful tweets and threats, is the full-voiced clamor of those who agree with the current administration engendering fear that silences other voices?
Efforts to mute dissent by television networks are to be expected. Their primary interest is profits, not freedom of speech. Reza Aslan lost his CNN religion show, Believer, after he tweeted from his personal account that President Trump was a “piece of shit” and “an embarrassment to humankind.”
Politicians targeted by dissent are attempting to silence it, whether via punitive state laws or the power of office. Rep. Darrell Issa of California has lodged several complaints against protesters who gather weekly outside his district office in San Diego County—despite official confirmation that the demonstrators were not in violation of their permit.
More than any other source, I expect efforts to silence dissent from the executive branch. And indeed, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is now threatening to go after journalists who report on leaks from within the administration.
Yes, myriad entities would muzzle dissenting speech today, popular and otherwise, but I’d never have expected our library system to be one of them. It is sorrowing and disturbing that a public agency committed, as it says on its website, to preserving “the right of intellectual freedom by providing unrestricted access to information, public education and the world of ideas”—an institution dedicated to protecting challenged books with its embrace of Banned Books Week—would itself ban a book.
Using all the Southern charm I could muster, I asked the county library folks to reverse the book banning. They did not. The publisher agreed to share an embarrassingly unedited draft for review, but still no reversal. The American Library Association indicated that the decision seemed contrary to the spirit of the Library Bill of Rights, an opinion I forwarded. Again, no response.
As a last resort, I contacted the ACLU, which sent a letter, polite but intrinsically threatening. A week later, a dapper library director shook my hand, made unhesitant eye contact, and said we could feature Not My President after all. I wish it was my good Southern graces or the unedited yet compelling writing, but surely it was the ACLU. Whatever the cause, the reading is on, and my citrus are ripening.
In the meantime, whether the library system has the right to ban a book from the series remains debatable. Today, however, the more important question is not whether it can ban a book, but whether it should.
Kit-Bacon Gressitt is a contributing writer in Not My President: The Anthology of Dissent. She is working on a narrative nonfiction book, In Search of Ada.