Law and Conversation

September 20, 2010

Read This: Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak”

I don’t know whether “Speak,” the YA novel by acclaimed and award-winning writer Laurie Halse Anderson that eloquently conveys a high school girl’s pain over a rape and the ensuing meanness and social ostracism from her peers, will become a classic.  But, just in time for Banned Books Week, someone’s trying to ban it from a school library, which puts “Speak” in the excellent company of  many acknowledged classics that are now required reading in many, if not most, schools.

I had to run out to the library yesterday to find a copy of “Speak” after I saw the outrage on the part of Halse Anderson, as well as many readers and writers whom I follow on Twitter, over a Missouri management professor’s screed condemning the book as containing “soft pornography” because it depicts–in far from graphic terms–the girl’s rape by a high school boy. 

The  term “pornography” doesn’t have a legal definition.  Some of my dictionaries define it as “writing about prostitutes,” “obscene or licentious writing,” or “obscene literature having little or no artistic merit.”  For courts, the term that counts is “obscenity,” which the courts have struggled to define over the years.  U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart achieved immortality with his attempt, “I know it when I see it,” in his concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).  Nine years later, in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), the court adopted a three-part test for finding that a work is obscene:  “(a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Many readers and writers who have tweeted and blogged about the professor’s article are having a hard time trying to figure out how any portion of “Speak” could possibly satisfy a dictionary definition of “pornography,” let alone any part of the court’s definition of obscenity.  Blog posts with more details about the book and the proposed ban are available here, here, and here, among many other places. 

Acknowledged classics that have been the subject of similar banning attempts include Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” George Orwell’s “1984,” William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.  Sherman Alexie’s terrific “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Fiction in 2007, has also been the subject of banning attempts. You can follow Laurie Halse Anderson on Twitter here.

Have you read “Speak?”  What banned books do you like?

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