Banned books, banned ideas, banned thoughts

It may seem ironic, so deep into the information age, that a panel discussion about censorship would still be necessary. After all, the Internet has given us access to everything from the complete text of previously banned books to the gigantic document dumps of Wikileaks, a world of previously secret information available to anybody with a computer, smartphone or tablet.

But words and thoughts are still banned, whether through Internet censorship by government control, speech codes enacted in the name of increasing civility or to stop bullying, or even an old-school government decree.

Thus, the “Uncensored Voices: Celebrating Literary Freedom” panel, slated for 7 p.m. Saturday at the Clark County Library theater, in recognition of National Banned Books Week. The panel will be hosted by the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, as a prelude to the Vegas Valley Book Festival.

It’s an all-star lineup, too:

Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation monitors legal news surrounding Wikileaks as well as the secrecy surrounding the use of remotely piloted military aircraft (we call them drones).

UNLV Boyd Law School professor Jeanne Price, a former corporate and securities lawyer in Houston, teaches research methods and specializes in law and language.

Then there’s novelist Tony Diaz, who wrote “The Aztec Love God,” a 1998 Nilton Award for Excellence in Minority Fiction winner. He’s a promoter of Latino literature and literacy, and is one of the people behind the “underground libraries” movement known as Librotraficante.

And Augustine Romero, the director of student equity for the Tucson Unified School District, is co-founder of the Social Justice Project with the district and the University of Arizona’s Mexican American Studies and Research Center.

(Don’t let this dissuade you from attending, but I’ll be the moderator for the evening, doing my best to stay out of the way of the distinguished panel.)

As in past years, there will be readings from banned books – with a dramatic twist. First, censorship from times past, with readings from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, Arabian Nights and the infamous Comstock Law of 1873, which prohibited the sale or distribution of any “obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, figure … or other article of an immoral nature.”

Then we’ll dart into the present, reading from a 2010 Arizona state law that was used to ban an ethnic studies curriculum in the Tucson Unified School District on the grounds that it was designed for students of a particular ethnic group and advocates ethnic solidarity.

And finally, we’ll gaze into the future, with a look at high-tech laws aimed at stopping Wikileaks or others ostensibly to protect content from online piracy. As well, we’ll hear about what happens when a popular video-sharing site such as YouTube decides to block content. There may even be a reading of a new declaration, this one aimed at Internet freedom.

The motives behind censorship are often presented as noble – the desire to protect minority groups from hate speech, to promote more civility in public discourse or to prevent young children who happen to be different or weaker from bullying. But the underlying concept is almost always the same: by controlling what a person says, the censors hope ultimately to control what a person thinks, and thus how society behaves. The war of ideas is often more critical than wars waged with bombs and bullets.

So throw off your shackles and join us on Saturday night at the Clark County Library. Whatever your position, you’ll hear some free speech to challenge it.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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