Censoring the Working Class

Kathy M. Newman Carnegie Mellon University

Does the first amendment work the same for all Americans? What kind of freedoms do working people have to read, look at, and say what they want? The subject is on my mind this month as I gear up to host a series of Banned Books Week events in Pittsburgh.

Banned Books Week started in 1982 when First Amendment crusader and super librarian Judith Krug was asked by the American Booksellers Association to organize some events highlighting controversial books. The ABA had noticed a sharp increase in the number of challenges made to books in the early years of the Reagan presidency. Krug’s initiative was so successful that Banned Books Week is still going strong at 37 years.

While it is extremely rare in modern American history for a book to be banned or censored by any branch of the US government, organizations like the American Library Association (ALA) track the hundreds of challenges that individual citizens—frequently in their role as parents—make to public libraries, school libraries, and books included in a particular K-12 curriculum. A typical case is the most recent challenge to the Harry Potter series at a Catholic school in Tennessee. The popular books were removed from Nashville’s St. Edward Catholic School library because the school’s priest claimed that they encouraged children to cast evil spells. You can see the most frequently challenged books of 2018 here.

A quick perusal of the ALA Banned Books site shows that books featuring working-class characters and/or politically left/radical messages frequently find their way onto the banned and challenged list. This is because, as banned book scholar Emily Knox has argued, “banned books are diverse books.” Popular books by and/or about women, people of color, LGBTQ and working-class people are more at risk of being challenged and banned.

Possibly the most famous case of book banning in American history involves involved John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath—the pitiful story about a family of “Okies” displaced by the 1930s Dustbowl who migrated to Kern County, CA to work in the orchards. In 1939, despite the fact that Grapes of Wrath was a best seller, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 1 to ban the novel from the county’s libraries and schools. An intrepid librarian, Gretchen Knief, tried to fight the ban. Though she failed, her efforts resulted in the creation of a Library Bill of Rights which has protected many other books from a similar fate.

Since the start of Banned Books Week in 1982 the ALA had logged thousands of challenges to dozens of classic novels that feature working-class characters and settings, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Chocolate War, Of Mice and Men, The Bluest Eye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Native Son, and The Color Purple.

Students at an Arkansas high school protest the ban on Howard Zinn’s books

In the 21st century one of the most frequently challenged books has been Barbara Ehrenreich’s exposé of low wage work, Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America. Almost as soon as the book was published in 2002, high schools began adopting it. But as Nickel and Dimed grew in popularity, parents began challenging its inclusion in curricula and school libraries in North Carolina, Kansas, and Easton, PA. Howard Zinn’s radical, pro-working class books have also been a frequent 21st century target. In 2017, a state representative in Arkansas proposed a statewide ban of all works by Zinn. His books have also been challenged in Indiana and Arizona.

As with books, visual art that features working-class themes has—and continues to be—banned and censored. One of the most famous cases involved the destruction of a mural Diego Rivera painted at Rockefeller Center at the behest of the Rockefeller family in the 1930s. The aspects of Man at the Crossroads that offended Rivera’s benefactor included its depiction of Vladimir Lenin on one side of the mural and a member of the Rockefeller family drinking alcohol on the other. Because the mural was painted into wet plaster, censoring it required it to be chiseled out of the space.

The controversy over Rivera’s work seems long ago and far away. However, as recently as 2011 a mural depicting scenes from Maine’s labor history was removed from the state labor department by Maine governor Paul LePage. LePage also ordered the renaming of several conference rooms named for famous labor leaders, including Cesar Chavez and Rose Schneiderman.

Our relative freedom to see and read artistic and educational works by and about working-class people is one way to understand the relationship between class and the First Amendment. Another way to think about this relationship is to examine the status of free speech protections on the job.

In the era of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, we might cheer when someone loses their job for a racist Facebook post or because they were accused of sexual misconduct. But Political Science professor Corey Robin reminds us that corporations are not free speech zones, and that “the American workplace is one of the most coercive institutions around.”

In a rare case with a happy ending, in 2010, social services provider Mariana Cole-Rivera asked her co-workers in a Facebook post how they felt about being told they weren’t working hard enough. When she was fired for posting this question she sued her employer for wrongful termination and won her case.

Free speech rights on the job are especially important to any kind of worker collective action. If you don’t have the right to speak freely at work, how can you possibly organize a union? Classic union busting techniques such as captive audience meetings, veiled or open threats to close workplaces if they become unionized, and other kinds of workplace coercion threaten the rights of workers to speak freely—as well as to organize. And in the Trump era, attacks on workers have been designed to curtail their collective ability to organize as well as to strike. As a result, earlier this year a group of Democratic House and Senate leaders introduced legislation called the PRO act that would strengthen the ability of workers to form unions—thus boosting workers’ voices on the job.

Workers have long been on the front lines of First Amendment protections. Legal historian Laura Weinrib has argued in her recent book, The Taming of Free Speech: America’s Civil Liberties Compromisethat labor organizers were amongst the earliest free speech crusaders and that the founders of the ACLU were especially focused on the rights of workers to strike, picket and boycott.

At the end of this month, when the ALA kicks off Banned Books Week, pick up one of these great novels about labor, and when you do, remember to thank the great heroine librarians like Judith Krug and Gretchen Knief who fought for your right to read controversial books. While you’re at it pick up the phone and tell your Congressional representatives to pass the PRO act and to fight for your right to organize!


Reposted from Working-Class Perspectives