Up in Flames

Shoppers at Barnes & Noble bookstores this month are being given a special bookmark along with their book purchases. On the front is a photograph of a book going up in flames; on the back is a dire warning against those who would dare burn books. The American Library Association designated this past week as "Banned Book Week," and booksellers like Barnes & Noble are using the occasion to justify selling child pornography. It's an indication of how a noble goal—protecting free expression—has been twisted to support—well, twisted ends. The American Library Association says Banned Book Week was intended to draw attention to what it calls "assaults on intellectual freedom." But some booksellers are hiding behind the cause of intellectual freedom to justify selling filth. For the past year or so, Barnes & Noble has come under fire for selling a pair of books entitled The Age of Innocence by David Hamilton and Radiant Identitiesby Jock Sturges.   The books feature photographs of children in various states of undress in sexually suggestive poses. Hamilton's book goes even further, adding captions such as "Take me, take me, while I am yet young and true." As one pro-family advocate put it, this picture is telling people, "Rape me." Hamilton told Time magazine that his photos were intended to be "erotic" and "arousing." Because it insists on stocking these books, Barnes & Noble has become a target of nationwide protests by pro-family groups and, thank God, by grand juries in Tennessee and Alabama who have agreed the images sexually exploit children. Alabama has handed down 32 counts of child pornography against Barnes & Noble. And according to World magazine, the FBI is investigating the two photographers to determine whether their work violates federal child pornography laws. To justify itself, Barnes & Noble is attempting to wrap itself in the First Amendment. The chain solemnly proclaims that "the offerings of our stores must always remain as diverse as the society which grants them freedom to exist." Well, somebody needs to remind Barnes & Noble that in our system of laws, no right is absolute. That includes the right to freedom of expression. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, freedom of speech does not include the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater. Even a fundamental right like the freedom of speech can be trumped by a compelling societal interest, and most of us would agree that protecting children from sexual exploitation is deeply compelling. And that's what's really at stake here—not an attack on intellectual freedom. Christians ought not to let this high-sounding rhetoric of Barnes & Noble intimidate us—or make us feel like narrow-minded censors. Of all people, Christians value freedom of expression. After all, the Bible has been at the top of the "burn" list of many a tyrant. But Christians also value creating the kind of society where bookstores don't want to sell filth that exploits children. If we don't put our children's safety ahead of the bookseller's desire to sell filth, our whole society will eventually go up in flames.


Chuck Colson


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