Authors Guild opposes “soft” censorship and urges all to shine a light on it whenever possible

While book banning and the censoring of discussions about racism, sexuality, social inequality, and even history itself, continue to make front-page news, the Authors Guild is speaking out to help raise awareness of more subtle tactics that school boards and activists are embracing to purge books they deem inappropriate for children and young adults from libraries and classrooms.

South Dakota’s Rapid City Public School District drew national attention to the increasing use of “soft” or “quiet” censorship last week when it came to light that the school board planned to “destroy” more than 350 new books. The books, which were considered “surplus,” were originally purchased for an approved 12th grade English curriculum, but never made it into classrooms. Selected by seven high school English teachers, and purchased using taxpayer money with the approval of Rapid City Public School District’s Instructional Council in Summer 2021, the books were meant to be distributed to seniors at Rapid City’s three high schools this fall. They were pulled after high school principals objected to some of the content.

Among the books to be destroyed are 185 copies of How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue; 35 copies of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; 75 copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky; 30 copies of Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo; and 30 copies of The Circle by Dave Eggers.

“It saddens me that my books might be destroyed at a time when there are children in this country and around the world who are desperate for books to read. I know because I was once one of those children,” wrote Imbolo Mbue, in an email shared with the Authors Guild. Mbue was born and raised in Cameroon before immigrating to the United States to study. How Beautiful We Were, her most recent novel, tells the story of what happens when a fictional African village decides to fight against an American oil company that has been polluting its land for many years.

A subtle censorship strategy

Soft, or quiet, censorship occurs when, rather than banning books and other resources outright, materials are unobtrusively removed, limited, or left unpurchased entirely in order to avoid potential objections. In Rapid City, the books in question, despite being new and unread, were quietly added to a surplus property list after one school board member said she felt that the board had to be “cautious” when it came to books used in the classroom. The move attracted little attention until hours before the board was due to approve the surplus property list and the subsequent destruction of the books.

“‘Quiet censorship’ can be even more damaging than outright book banning because you can’t challenge it if you don’t know that it has happened,” said Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild. “The Supreme Court places very strict limitations on the banning or censoring of ideas precisely because First Amendment rights are so sacred. Pulling materials from a shelf or refusing to purchase certain books, whether out of undue caution or fear of controversy, limits community members’ ability to access, read, and learn more about new or different ideas that might have been essential to their lives or understanding of the wider world. Sadly, however, with quiet censorship, the community may never even know what they’ve lost.”

According to the Rapid City Journal, the public would never have been made aware of the situation if one Rapid City board member hadn’t asked that the books not be destroyed until a discussion about the books could be held. Placing this item on the agenda highlighted it and also allowed for members of the public to share their perspectives. Many expressed concern over destroying the books rather than selling or donating them. As a result, the school board voted unanimously to delay destroying the books until it can consult with legal counsel and determine the best way to proceed.

“Knowledge is power,” said Doug Preston, President of the Authors Guild. “That why the Authors Guild felt the need to make a statement about what’s happening in South Dakota and elsewhere. Whether it is book banning or quiet censorship, we urge authors, readers, and all who support free speech, to do what they can to shine a light on these reprehensible attempts to limit or shut down ideas and free expression.”

For more ways on how to combat censorship, visit our Banned Books Club and Stop Book Banning Toolkit.