Banned Books Week at Harvard Law: How censorship leaves us in the dark

Library lecture series looks at censorship efforts designed to silence dissent and wipe out cultural history

Credit: Lorin Granger For Banned Books Week, held at HLS from Sept. 23- 26, the HLS Library co-hosted a series of lectures that looked at the broad world of censorship through a number of lenses. Jocelyn Kennedy, executive director of the Harvard Law School Library, introduces keynote speakers for a Sept. 24 talk, “Censorship by Fire; Book Burning as an Act of Cultural Violence.”

In 1829, David Walker, a writer and abolitionist, published a treatise in Boston, “To the Coloured Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America.” Walker, the son of an enslaved man and a free black woman, made an appeal for black unity and the abolition of slavery.

Walker’s tract, described by its opponents as “the diabolical Boston pamphlet,” was one of the most radical pieces of abolitionist writing at the time. A censorship campaign waged in the antebellum South to suppress the pamphlet and other abolitionist materials led to arrests, the smashing of presses, attempted censorship of the post office, as well as pressure on the Northern states to control speech at a time when it was believed that discussion would “lead to disunity.”

The censorship of Walker’s treatise—the subject of a Sept. 25 talk by Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy—was part of a series of lectures hosted by the Harvard Law School Library at the end of September to commemorate Banned Book Week. This year marks the fourth time the Harvard Law School Library has hosted Banned Books Week, an annual program of exploration and discussion spearheaded by the American Library Association in support of the right to read.

In addition to Professor Kennedy’s talk, this year’s lectures—and an accompanying library exhibit—explored how book banning and censorship of knowledge has silenced dissent, wiped out cultural history in a time of war, and kept crucial information and art from the public.

According to Jocelyn Kennedy, executive director of the Harvard Law School Library and a lecturer on law at HLS, Banned Books Week is an opportunity to look at the broad world of censorship through a number of lenses and to showcase the things libraries value: difficult subject matter, deep inquiry, human rights and the way that the entire Harvard Law School community is part of the learning endeavor.

“Libraries are champions of free expression and part of our job is to shine the light on the ways that censorship keeps us in the dark,” said Kennedy. “This is hyper relevant today as news, expression, art—really everything we intellectually consume—is being filtered through some sort of public or private censorship.”

On September 23, the series kicked off with a discussion led by Svetlana Mintecheva, director of programs at the National Coalition Against Censorship. In her talk, “Cancel Culture: Can Free Speech in Cultural Institutions Survive the Onslaught of Moral Outrage?,” Mintecheva asserted that the cancel culture practice is placing cultural heritage institutions in the position of evaluating their exhibits and collection practices against social will. She warned cultural institutions are succumbing to public pressure to remove art and artists from their walls.

Mintecheva pointed to a 2017 controversy at the Whitney Museum of American Art, involving artist Dana Schutz’ portrayal of Emmett Till in her work “Open Casket,” as an example of the impact the current, but certainly not new, ‘cancel culture’ movement is having on cultural institutions. She discussed the need to have nuanced conversations about the past, to create “safe spaces for unsafe ideas,” and the importance of preserving difficult art that serves as commentary on past, present and future concerns.

The second talk focused on the violence associated with censorship, particularly in times of war. In a Sept. 24 lecture, “Censorship by Fire; Book Burning as an Act of Cultural Violence,” Andras Riedlmayer of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard’s Fine Arts Library and Radu Popa, assistant dean and director of the NYU Law Library, shared examples of attempts by state actors to control dissenting views and eliminate cultural heritage in times of war. Riedlmayer testified before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as an expert on the destruction of cultural heritage during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. He described the deliberate destruction of libraries and other cultural heritage spaces, particularly the targeting and destruction of Bosnia’s National Library during the shelling of Sarajevo in 1992.

Radu Popa and András Riedlmayer field questions from the audience

Credit: Lorin Granger Radu Popa (left), assistant dean for Library Services & director of the NYU Law Library, and András Riedlmayer, bibliographer in Islamic Art and Architecture at the Harvard Fine Arts Library, field questions from the audience during their talk “Censorship by Fire; Book Burning as an Act of Cultural Violence,” one of several Banned Books Week events that took place at Harvard Law School in late September.

Popa, a fiction writer and essayist, focused on dissent under communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania, where he said his attempts to evade censorship through various literary techniques was “like a game of chess.” In his talk, Popa discussed his long and often humorous battle with the censors over his fiction work, a challenge he fought until 1985, when he asked for asylum in the United States. Popa eventually became the director of the New York University Law Library.

In addition to the lecture series, the library hosted an exhibit titled “Walt Whitman: Banned in Boston.” Curated by James Fraser, a current student in the Simmons University Library Science program, the exhibit—which is on display through Oct. 18 in Areeda Hall—showcases the New England Watch and Ward Society’s unsuccessful attempt to censor Whitman’s seminal work “Leaves of Grass.” As was often the case with banned books, the attempted repression caused Whitman’s book to gain in popularity, and it sold out on the day of its release. Harvard Law School Library holds part of the records of the Watch and Ward Society, which provided rich historical context for this exhibit.

For Jocelyn Kennedy, the Banned Books Week programming is a reminder that in a just and civil society, communities need to come together to discuss, to share and, most of all, to learn.

That sentiment was echoed in part in Professor Kennedy’s discussion of Walker’s abolitionist treatise. Despite efforts by the Southern states to contain Walker’s treatise, the pamphlet, along with other abolitionist pieces, spread far and wide. In the end, said Kennedy, the tide of public opinion—rather than the courts—ended this particular regime of information suppression.

Free speech is often a catalyst to racial justice, said Kennedy, who called for more, and difficult, conversation about race. “Racial justice is the seedbed for civil liberties,” he concluded.

Banned Books Week­ was first launched in the 1980s as a way to bring public awareness to the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Island Trees School District v. Pico, which established that local school boards could not remove books from school libraries solely based on content. Despite the Court ruling, the practice of challenging books continues today.

After the inaugural HLS Banned Books Week in 2016 garnered significant student interest, the library began partnering with student organizations. This year’s event was co-sponsored by the ACLU at HLS, The Harvard Law School Rule of Law Society, the Law and Philosophy Society, the American Constitution Society, the Harvard Federalist Society, and the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative of the International Human Rights Clinic.

Joshua Smith ’20 played an important role this year co-curating the event. Working closely with HLS Library staff, Smith helped identify speakers and topics.

In choosing banned book subject matter to highlight, Smith said, the library looked to the past and the present, as well as to international issues. “Whenever the time, wherever the place, we saw governments, businesses, civil society, and individuals oppose open inquiry in art and ideas for all sorts of reasons—political, racial, religious, aesthetic, historical, moral, ideological,” he said. “Some censorship entrances, some repulses, all is worth examining, and all, at the very least, should make us pause.”