Forming a concrete opinion on the happenings in Halton has proved difficult for me. My opinions on censorship tend towards being liberal to the point of libertarianism, essentially condemning any attempt at restricting others’ freedom to learn. For instance, in the famous U.S. Supreme Court case, Skokie v. Illinois, I am in favour of allowing American Nazis to march through a community of Holocaust survivors if they have the requisite permits. This likely stems from a fear of persecution for my own beliefs and being, as I am politically a former communist who still has strong leanings toward the authoritarian side of the political left. As an American and a student of history, I have studied the various Red Scares and the persecution of communists and the far left in general for their supposedly “dangerous” and “radical” beliefs. I cannot help but think that restricting the speech of the political far right, even when fascist, would come back to haunt me as an individual due to my political leanings.
That all being said, I am still inordinately sympathetic to Halton and the other school districts that have had challenges to or banned The Golden Compass, especially amongst the public Catholic schools in areas of Canada. The reasons for this are primarily concerned with the various incendiary comments made by Philip Pullman. From my perspective, it seems as if Pullman is taunting school districts such as Halton to ban his book just for publicity, and, whether cultivated or not, it is difficult to imagine that the news coverage of the multitude of challenges and bannings right around the release of The Golden Compass‘ movie version did not increase the movie’s attention. While this coverage’s impact at the box office is impossible to track, there is certainly an interpretation that Pullman gained from these challenges, using the adage “all publicity is good publicity,” independent of the truth (or lack thereof) contained within.
It is this skepticism of Pullman that partially limits my leaping to his defense. There is, however, also a much more obvious reason, if not a great one, that this should not have been an issue. If all this publicity and Pullman’s comments had been closely associated with the trilogy when it was ordered by the district’s librarians, the series likely would have never been purchased in the first place. This is a form of pre-censorship, but also one every single person engages in when they choose which media they engage in, be it choosing one book over another, or the same with movies, television shows, etcetera. I am not saying that this process is the ideal, but to some extent this controversy was artificially created twelve years after the release of the original book version of The Golden Compass, directly prior to the release of the movie.
This all being said, I still believe that The Golden Compass should have been retained in the libraries of the Halton Catholic School District. Reverend Wilhelm was absolutely correct in his comments at the school board meeting concerned with this banning, that the disallowal of students in Halton Catholic schools to read The Golden Compass increased its publicity and may well have caused more people to read the book than be prevented. Besides this agreement with this logic, students absolutely should be able to engage with belief systems different from the ones they are being propagandized into in school. It is not as if the students here were the ones who chose a Catholic education. That choice was the parents’. And, while students very often end up to some extent reflecting the views of their parents, it is the duty of schools to encourage critical thinking and give children the resources to think for themselves and develop their own belief systems if they so choose. The sub-committee here was absolutely correct. Students deserve the right to think critically, and one children’s novel is not going to permanently “turn them away from God” if they are not already so inclined. Banning The Golden Compass in the Halton Catholic School District was the wrong move, both from the perspective of the board and the students, at least in the opinion of someone with strong anti-censorship beliefs from a different country, albeit a close one.