A few weeks ago, Raed Jarrar was denied boarding at JFK Airport because his t-shirt displayed “We Will Not Be Silent” in Arabic. Employees told Jarrar to change or turn his shirt inside out, as it was offending the other passengers. These types of incidents serve as reminders of the importance of the First Amendment, which addresses the right to freedom of expression. Last week, the Cornell University Library sponsored an interactive project focusing on banned and challenged books in order to raise awareness in the Cornell community about these issues.
The last week of every September is the American Library Association’s nationwide Banned Book Week. This initiative highlights literary works that have generated controversy, usually for profanity or sexual explicitness. On campus exhibits included the main display in the lobby of Olin Library (which has now been moved to Uris), and a smaller one of books banned in Asia in Kroch Library. Students, staff and faculty selected the titles featured on the displays, which ranged from The Great Gatsby (this year’s choice for the New Student Reading Project) to the Harry Potter series. Viewers were also allowed to post comments in a flip chart on the boards.
As a new addition to the week’s events, the Cornell American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) co-sponsored Speak Out on Sept. 28. Beginning at noon, spectators gathered on Ho Plaza to listen to ACLU members read selections from certain banned books. Those matching the excerpts to the correct works received a copy of the novel, and by the end of the event all 30 of the books had been distributed. Selected titles included Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, associate professor of Russian Literature at Cornell from 1948 until 1959.
Both the library and the ACLU pronounced the week as a success, fulfilling its goals by generating interest and positive responses from students and faculty. Knowledge of these issues is important because “censorship comes from the left, right and middle,” explained Anne R. Kenney, the associate university librarian for instruction, research and information services. She added that “having an open and free channel of information is a critical component of democracy.” ACLU President Everet Yi ’08 described Banned Book Week as a “vehicle for expressing the importance of freedom of speech to the Cornell community.”
In the future, sponsors look to expand on this year’s events. Next year they will add more exhibits to the other libraries on campus in order to give students a greater opportunity to share their thoughts. Speak Out will become an annual event. Additionally, the ACLU plans to incorporate more of a variety of novels, and possibly to expand to include magazines, newspapers and other types of publications.
The Cornell ACLU meets every Wednesday from 5:30-7 p.m. in Goldwin Smith 162.