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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Even with the best intentions, censoring books is dangerous

Censorship of ideas will always have unintended consequences

Banned Books Week is an annual campaign in which libraries, schools, bookstores and other institutions rally to show their support for books that have been censored and banned for often irrational reasons. There seems to be a very clear understanding that banning books tends to do more harm than good. Almost all the classics have been subject to censorship, even the greatest of the Great American Reads.

My interest in looking at banned books and censorship was renewed for two reasons. This past month, journalist Ronan Farrow came out with “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators.” This book has been at the top of my to-read list since it was announced. “Catch and Kill” isn’t just a detailed account of Farrow’s experience reporting the Harvey Weinstein story for The New Yorker, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, but also a window into the nefarious structural systems that have allowed for powerful figures such as Harvery Weinstein to remain in the public sphere with impunity. 

Then, Amazon Australia and other major Australian booksellers blocked the sale of “Catch and Kill” for all the wrong reasons.

Dylan Howard, the Chief Content Officer for American Media, is prominently featured in “Catch in Kill” for his close alliance with Weinstein. Howard’s lawyers had sent letters to Australian booksellers warning them that if they sold this book, they would also face the same legal actions as the publishers for “the defamatory imputations contained within the book.”

At the outset, this is an affront to democracy and the free press. This book was written and published with tight scrutiny for factual accuracy and the utmost journalistic integrity. But what I didn’t understand is why there was a threat to pursue legal action to get a book banned, and why there were booksellers who complied with this demand. 

Censorship and banning books are all too common among schools, parent groups and organizations looking to keep certain concepts or ideas away from children. The list ranges from “Animal Farm” to the “Harry Potter” series. The most frequent justifications for banning such books are alarmist at best and malicious censorship of unique ideas at worst.

I have always been a staunch supporter of maintaining open access to banned books in order to assure the free and open flow of words, thoughts and ideas in a democratic society. But I recently came across a new trend in which books are being banned for the purpose of inclusivity and to ensure that children won’t read material that could potentially be upsetting.

This may seem like an understandable reason to keep certain books away from children, but censorship is never that simple. Banning books because they might touch upon some difficult themes, or because they might contain damning information, is just another form of regressive censorship.  

It seems we live in a time when we have become much more concerned about the content kids and young adults consume, especially online and through different forms of media. But unlike social media posts, books are written to foster an open and frank conversation about real-life experiences so that we may understand, process and accept the raw realities of life as a part of the human experience. 

Books are meant to be openly discussed and contested in order to spark the kind of intellectual curiosity that allows for us to gain an understanding of the world in which we live. Even with the most misguided and perhaps even reprehensible content, books don’t have the same sort of virality that we see on social media. They can be openly debated and aired out in a way that isn’t possible with social media. 

I can understand the instinct that is often the drive behind banning certain books, but even if done with the best of intentions, censorship still carries unintended consequences. Often, most of the books facing censorship are the ones with diverse characters and stories.

 Books, no matter how “egregious” they may be, deserve to be circulated. In being circulated, readers are afforded the basic freedom to judge the value of a book and its meaning for themselves.

Written by: Simran Kalkat — skkalkat@ucdavis.edu 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie


  1. Gate-keeping who is and isn’t allowed to write, along with which subjects they are and aren’t allowed to write about, is equally as pernicious as censorship. Amelie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir, for example. The way dogmatic identitarian zeal has put such a straight-jacket on young adult literature is alarming, to say the least. “Cancel culture” is cancerous in all of its forms.


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