Bringing Home the First Amendment


The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, by Nat Hentoff, New York: Laurel-Leaf Library/Dell, 116 pp., $2.25

Support for a free press and opposition to government censorship are not attitudes universally held in this country, the First Amendment notwithstanding. In January 1984, the US Court of Appeals in Denver temporarily prohibited a publisher of law books from printing a judicial opinion that offended the federal government; the opinion had been highly critical of what the judge perceived to be grossly unethical conduct by government prosecutors. Earlier that same month, the US Court of Appeals in New York permanently banned the publication of an investment newsletter whose publisher had been refused a printing license by the federal government because he was a convicted felon.

How do attitudes for or against government censorship begin? Are all government lawyers born with the soul of a censor? Or is it an acquired taste? For example, our oldest child, Katie, is 13 and is developing what appears to be a healthy skepticism toward the use and misuse of government power. It is, I suspect, an attitude stemming in part from an independent research project and paper she wrote at age 11 on the Polish government's suppression of the Solidarity labor movement. On the other hand, she is not particularly tolerant of opposing viewpoints on subjects where she has exceptionally strong opinions—sexism and racism being two prominent examples.

Intolerance of obnoxious ideas is one thing; government censorship of them is something else entirely. How do you convey the concept that the former does not—and must not—lead to the latter in a free society? In particular, how does one convey this to a daughter whose attraction to something called "Duran Duran" mystifies her parents, much as our attachment to the Beatles mystified her grandparents?

One possibility is journalist Nat Hentoff, a dedicated civil libertarian, whose regular columns in Inquiry on the First Amendment are quite simply the best commentary being written on freedom of the press. Hentoff displays none of the inconsistencies and hypocrisies displayed by the First Amendment's summer soldiers, liberal and conservative alike, who wrap themselves in its mantle only when their own oxen are being gored.

Hentoff has also written a number of novels for young people. His most recent such novel, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, concerns the attempted banning of Huckleberry Finn from a high school's library and assigned reading lists. When I came across the novel, I promptly recommended it to Katie, who, to my delight, devoured it over a weekend. Her review and impressions of the book follow.

—Michael McMenamin

I never thought much about the First Amendment before I read The Day They Came to Arrest the Book. When my dad gave it to me, I had some idea that the First Amendment concerns freedom of speech and press. I also knew that censorship violates the First Amendment. My friends also know about the First Amendment, since we are studying the Constitution in school; but they don't seem to care about it, because they have never been affected by any violations of the amendment. In my school, we've never seen a book censored.

Mr. Hentoff's novel deals mainly with censorship of high-school books. It takes place at George Mason High School, where parents had been complaining about certain books being offensive and immoral. The principal of the school had been secretly removing these books to avoid going through the school's censorship procedures. When some students and parents accused The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn of being racist, sexist, and immoral, the teacher who had assigned the book for a history class and the new librarian insisted that the correct censorship procedures be used by the principal.

Right at the beginning, the author establishes the principal as the bad guy. The students and the teachers have great times throughout the book making fun of and imitating the principal. He is an amusing character. In fact, all the characters in this book are very identifiable and are as fun to read about as the principal. I think that children understand things better when they can identify with characters in a book who are their own age. A child also would understand this book because it takes place in a school, an environment that they understand.

It was wise for Mr. Hentoff to choose Huckleberry Finn as the book that was censored. First, Huckleberry Finn is a piece of art and not trash. Second, it actually has been censored in high schools. In addition, it has two very clear sides to it. There is a sexist, racist side and a side that says, "I'm just telling about a boy's life and what it was like to live in the time period that he lived in." Mark Twain is an exceptional writer and didn't write the book to offend people. He wrote the book to show the ignorance of those who treat black people in an inhuman way and use words that offend them.

Mr. Hentoff's book gives excellent arguments for both sides of the issue. One argument that was constantly used for censorship was that Huckleberry Finn has many offensive passages. These passages are supposed to poison the minds of the young, because they would expose the children to sexism and racism.

Opponents of censorship pointed out that there was a book in all libraries that was never censored. It had many stories containing violence, sex, and adultery. It had passages far worse than those complained about in Huckleberry Finn. These stories came from the Bible! So they argued that if you are going to censor Huckleberry Finn, then you had better censor the Bible too.

Another argument for censorship was that children shouldn't be exposed to lies, because they might believe them. But, as one character said, "The best way to deal with lies is to expose them, to get them out into the light and to deal with them logically."

Throughout the book, arguments supporting Huck were based on the First Amendment. The arguments for banning Huck were based on how the book could offend black people and women. I've read many books in which women were offensively treated as second-class citizens, but I interpret these books as showing life as it was. This is how I assumed black people felt too. But as I was reading Mr. Hentoff's book, I began to wonder about Huck Finn, because no one in the book had said that it was not offensive when interpreted in the right way. They only said that censorship violates the First Amendment. I was finally reassured when a black student in the book spoke up and said, "I know when those words—I mean particularly 'nigger'—are directed at me. In this book those words—particularly 'nigger'—are not intended by the author, Mark Twain, to insult or humiliate me or any other black person. They are clearly intended to rebuke and bring scorn to those ignorant, so-called grown-up, white people in the book who use those words."

The author takes a controversial subject, the First Amendment, and writes in a way that both kids and adults can understand how easily the First Amendment can be violated. Mr. Hentoff presents the issue with humor and style and makes the reader think twice about the US Constitution.

I recommend this book for any person from the age of 10 and up. All persons concerned with censorship, and especially children, should read it, because it will widen their views. When I think of Poland, and how Polish people can't say what they want in public and how they don't have a free press or any of the rights Americans have in the First Amendment, I think how lucky we are to have these rights and how easy it is to let them slip away from us. Children in the United States have to understand the First Amendment because it is violated so often. If they understand the issues now and how the First Amendment affects them, they'll have enough time to think about the problem and deal with it by the time they become adults.

Kathleen McMenamin is an eighth-grade student at Ruffing Montessori School in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Michael McMenamin, her father, is a Cleveland attorney and a contributing editor of REASON.