College students and free speech
It is understandable that some people might be uncomfortable reading a book about sexual orientation, gender identity and death.
And it stands to reason that no single book chosen for freshmen at the College of Charleston to read will appeal to every student. Or their parents.
But the to-do over “Fun Home” is overblown, and efforts to ban the book could undermine academic independence and even the basic right to free speech.
Each year, a College of Charleston committee of faculty, administrators, staff and students chooses a book, which freshmen are given to read before the start of school. Recommendations come from the public as well as the college community.
This year, “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel was selected, as it has been at many other colleges around the country. She has been engaged to speak at the College in October.
The College of Charleston might have expected some push-back because of its comic book format. But it is the content that upsets the conservative Palmetto Family organization. Oran Smith, president and chief operating officer, called it “very close to pornography.”
That’s what the blue-stocking critics of previous eras said about books by D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, J.D. Salinger and many others.
In the memoir, Ms. Bechdel chronicles her childhood and youth in rural America, including recognizing that she was a lesbian and her father was hiding his homosexuality.
“Fun Home” spent two weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. It was praised for its graphic novel form: a memoir expressed in comics. Several publications named it one of the best books of 2006.
College Associate Provost Lynne Ford said the book addresses issues that freshmen are facing, including “Who am I and how do I fit in?”
But even if the book weren’t acclaimed for its literary value, and didn’t have themes that might be of interest to students, the threat of censorship is chilling.
If a public school teacher chose “Fun Home” for students, parents could reasonably object to it as age inappropriate.
But college students are of an age to be considered adults, or at least heading in that direction. They should be expected to encounter a wide spectrum of thought and behavior during their college years, just as they will in the working world.
Professionals at the college work with those students, study a variety of publications and ought to have an idea what might benefit them.
Oran Smith hasn’t decided what action his group might take concerning the C of C. At least he concedes that the book shouldn’t be banned in America.
Mr. Smith and Palmetto Family are clearly not alone in their distaste for Ms. Bechdel’s book. A public library in Missouri removed the graphic novel from its shelves for five months after local residents objected to its contents. Eventually, it was returned to the shelves.
Literary censorship is generally a bad idea in a nation built on free speech.
And making a big deal about a book’s supposedly prurient content virtually guarantees a higher level of readership than it would otherwise expect.