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Book-burning in America: when wizards go up in smoke

Inside the First Amendment

By Kenneth A. Paulson
Senior vice president, the Freedom Forum
Executive director, First Amendment Center

01.13.02

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Harry Potter went up in flames in Alamogordo, N.M., one recent winter evening.

Several hundred members of Christ Community Church sang "Amazing Grace" in a public book burning that targeted J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books, "Star Wars" products and popular music.

The book burning was organized by Jack Brock, the church pastor, who contends that the books chronicling the adventures of a young wizard promote witchcraft and "the powers of darkness."

"Harry Potter is a masterpiece of satanic deception," according to Brock.

The church's book burning drew plenty of attention and plenty of condemnation. Community members, newspaper editorial writers and columnists decried the incineration of books and music.

No surprise there. While few would be unsettled by church members organizing a boycott or letter-writing campaign, the destruction of literature has a long and chilling history:

  • There are documented cases of book burning as early as 213 B.C. when Confucian books were ignited in an act of government persecution.
  • The first recorded book burning in the United States came in 1650. William Pynchon's A Meritorious Price of Our Redemption was ordered destroyed by a court because the religious publication contained "errors and heresies." The book was burned by the public executioner.

    About 20,000 books were burned on May 10, 1933, during a student rally as the Nazis rose to power in Germany.

  • The largest book burning in history reportedly occurred in 1992 when Serb forces attacked Sarajevo's National Library. The three-day assault destroyed more than 1 million books and 100,000 manuscripts and records.
  • Of course, most modern book burnings are of a much more modest scope. And occasionally, book burnings don't involve fires at all.

    When a group called "The Jesus Party" tried to secure a permit to burn Harry Potter books in a park in Lewiston, Maine, the fire department turned the group down, saying the flames would constitute a fire hazard.

    The group then improvised, announcing a "book cutting." Armed with scissors, Jesus Party leader Doug Taylor told the Lewiston Sun Journal: "We're Christians. We think these books are dangerous."

    In fairness, it's important to remember that the same First Amendment that protects books and music also gives Harry Potter critics the right to destroy books in a public demonstration.

    I was struck by the comment of Brock's wife, Sharon, who described the book burning this way: "It's really symbolic," she told the Associated Press. "Like you're putting it in a fire to get rid of it from your life."

    For years, this country has been split over another symbolic act: the burning of the American flag in protest of U.S. policies.

    In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that as disagreeable an act as it may be, burning the flag is a symbolic act of free expression and is protected by the First Amendment.

    As ugly as book burning is, it also constitutes symbolic speech. The members of Christ Community Church burned their own possessions in what amounted to a religious ritual. To the church members, the burning symbolized an escape from the influences of pop culture.

    That, of course, is the challenge of free speech in America. No matter how much you believe in freedom of expression, you don't have to move very far down the political or philosophical spectrum before you run into other expression that offends you deeply.

    Of course, the purpose of any public protest, including book burning, is to get public attention. Pastor Brock accomplished that.

    Yet it's also important to note that on that night in Alamogordo, about 1,500 people stood across from the book bonfire and shouted out their support for free speech and the right to read.

    While the book-burners torched tales of Harry and Jedi knights, the protesters celebrated freedom, turning a book burning into a pep rally for the First Amendment. Even bonfires can have silver linings.

    Ken Paulson is executive director of the First Amendment Center with offices in Arlington, Va., and Nashville, Tenn. His mailing address is:
    Ken Paulson
    First Amendment Center
    1207 18th Ave. S
    Nashville, TN 37212

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