2018 Behind, 2019 Ahead

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, General Interest, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Robert Sarwark

Here we are again, friends, just past the cusp of a new year. A lot happened in 2018, just as a lot happens every year, depending on how closely you look. But as relates to intellectual freedom, censorship, and similar issues, there’s been much to report upon. In this post I’ll try to provide a succinct wrap-up of the year that was, along with a look forward into 2019. But before I start, I’d like to thank any and all of you for reading along this past year and to wish you a very happy and healthy year to come.


“Net neutrality” refers to any government’s or other entity’s prevention or limitation of internet providers (such as Comcast or AT&T) in modulating their users’ internet access by throttling bandwidth or censoring content, among other possible restrictions. One outcome of a lack of net neutrality would be an ISP intentionally slowing subscribers’ download/uploading capabilities to a crawl, all but forcing them to purchase plans with faster speeds. Another example would be throttling speed in emergency situations due to data overages, perhaps restricting first responders’ abilities to use GPS, send communications such as texts, voice calls, and emails, or download essential data. This actually happened to firefighters this past summer during the California wildfires.

Bad timing for them. Just two months earlier, on June 11, 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), chaired by Ajit Pai, had passed by a slim margin the Restoring Internet Freedom Order (RIFO). This in effect overturned an executive order of the Obama Administration, which had strongly supported net neutrality. Pai has argued that RIFO encourages innovation and competition among service providers and does not adversely effect consumers. As a former associate general counsel for Verizon Communications, it’s not difficult to understand where his bias may lie.

What this means for you and me as individuals is that Big American ISPs may legally do all sorts of things to restrict our access, despite these companies’ claims that, OMG, they would never! Not convinced, meanwhile, many individual US state assemblies are enacting legislation to repeal the repeal. It’s not yet fully clear how this federal-state conflict will play out but it’s definitely one to watch in 2019.

For a great synopsis of the current state(s) of net neutrality across the US, see this article by Greg Landgraf in the latest issue of ALA’s American Libraries.

Book Banning and Censorship in Schools, Libraries, and Around the World

As recorded in many great blog posts herein, book banning, challenging, and other forms of censorship have taken place across the US. Some of the most prominent cases from 2018 include incidents, reverse chronologically, in Iowa, Utah, Maine, South Carolina, Alaska, Oregon, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey, all very thoughtfully documented by my fellow OIF bloggers.

As we slowly creep into 2019, another case of censorship has come to my attention, that of American comedian Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix show Patriot Act. Minhaj was extremely critical of the Saudi Arabian government’s draconian policies and alleged murder/disappearing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in an episode that aired in late 2018. Citing its anti-terror laws, the Saudi government soon later requested that Netflix remove the episode from its domestic viewers’ subscriptions, to which the company complied. Saudi journalist Safa Al Ahmad paints a grisly picture of what else would have befallen Minhaj had he himself lived in the Kingdom.

Meanwhile, in China, state-sponsored censorship has become big business. Recent college graduates like the one profiled by Li Yuan in this article in the New York Times see their jobs as “help[ing to] cleanse the online environment.”

Throughout the Ages

Back on the home front, I find myself as fascinated by historical examples of censorship and intellectual freedom as by the contemporary varieties. I’ll be heading back to the Houghton Library at Harvard in a few weeks to continue researching the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books, but I have also come across another related tidbit worth exploring. Thanks to a tip from a contact, it turns out that Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), Georgia’s homegrown author of “Southern Gothic” short stories and novels, was devout enough of a Catholic to refuse to read any book or other text listed on the Index (without a dispensation from a clergyman). Since her entire lifespan took place right before the Index was abolished in 1966, this aspect of her persona looks to be an angle ripe for further study. We love writing about authors whose books have been banned here, but what about those who self-censor their own reading? I look forward to digging deeper into it this year.

Until my next post, Happy New Year!


Robert SarwarkRobert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta and a 2018-2019 Visiting Fellow in Publishing History at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.

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