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Vonnegut, FTRF, and tonight's meet & greet

Posted By Jonathan M. Kelley, Thursday, April 11, 2013
Slaughterhouse-Five trading cardToday is the 6th anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut's death.

You may not be surprised to learn that FTRF and Vonnegut go way back: in fact, Slaughterhouse-Five was the book involved in FTRF's first court case. In 1971, the Freedom to Read Foundation provided a grant to the Rochester, Michigan school system to fight an attempt to remove the book from classrooms because it dealt in "religious matters" and thus using it in curricula was a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
 
In May of that year, a state trial court agreed with the plaintiff, calling Slaughterhouse-Five "valueless" and suggesting that it could be obscene:
 
The court did read the book as requested for determination of factual matters and issues of law alike, and unfortunately did thus waste considerable time. At points, the court was deeply disgusted. How any educator entrusted during school hours with the educational, emotional and moral welfare and healthy growth of children could do other than reject such cheap, valueless reading material, is incomprehensible. Its repetitious obscenity and immorality, merely degrade and defile, teaching nothing. Contemporary literature, of real educational value to youth abounds, contains scientific, social and cultural facts, of which youth need more to know, today.

The judge subsequently ordered the book removed, basing his decision on the Establishment Clause rather than the question of obscenity (although citing several words that underscored his obscenity concern).

On June 12, 1972, the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned the lower court's decision. Clarifying the book was not obscene, the court found that just because a book discussed religion does not mean that it can't be used in a public school setting.  Such an idea was, in fact, "repugnant":
 
By couching a personal grievance in First Amendment language, one may not stifle freedom of expression. Vigorously opposed to such a suggestion, we stand firm in rendering plaintiff's theory constitutionally impermissible.

If plaintiff's contention was correct, then public school students could no longer marvel at Sir Galahad's saintly quest for the Holy Grail, nor be introduced to the dangers of Hitler's Mein Kampf nor read the mellifluous poetry of John Milton and John Donne. Unhappily, Robin Hood would be forced to forage without Friar Tuck and Shakespeare would have to delete Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. Is this to be the state of our law? Our Constitution does not command ignorance; on the contrary, it assures the people that the state may not relegate them to such a status and guarantees to all the precious and unfettered freedom of pursuing one's own intellectual pleasures in one's own personal way.

That was, of course, by no means the last challenge to Slaughterhouse-Five. In 1973, it was burned by school board members in Drake, ND. It was one of the books involved in the seminal 1982 Pico v. Island Trees Supreme Court case. 
 
Most recently, a highly publicized incident, the Republic, Missouri School Board in 2011 banned the book, along with Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer from schools. They voted to retain Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak (perhaps in part because of the viral #speakloudly campaign that the removal effort generated).  A few months later, the board modified the ban, allowing parents to check out the books in person.

In response to this, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library offered free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to Republic high school students. At least 55 students took them up on the offer! 
 
Also that year, FTRF provided a Judith Krug Fund Banned Books Week grant to the Springfield-Greene County Library to help bring Ockler to Springfield (she also appeared that week at the KVML!) and to support a program with KVML board member and Vonnegut scholar Dr. William "Rodney" Allen appearing via Skype.  (Republic is located in Greene County.)  Last year, Slaughterhouse-Five was one of seven titles featured in the Lawrence, Kansas Public Library's "Banned Books Trading Cards" set, also made possible by the Krug Fund.
 
Applications for the 2013 round of Krug Fund grants are open through the end of this month.
 
Which brings us to today! This evening, in a coincidence of timing (though not of substance), the Freedom to Read Foundation will be holding a Meet & Greet at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library for attendees of the ACRL 2013 National Conference and other FTRF supporters in the Indianapolis area.  We hope to see a nice crowd there to explore the library, learn more about the Freedom to Read Foundation, and have a nosh.
 
And, of course, to celebrate the remarkable legacy of Kurt Vonnegut.

Tags:  Banned Books Week  Judith Krug Memorial Fund  Kurt Vonnegut  KVML  Pico  Republic  Slaughterhouse-Five 

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