During World War I, the Montana Sedition Act of early 1918 – which became the exact blueprint for the Federal Sedition Act apart from three words that were changed – called for the German songbook “Deutsche Lieder” and other German literature to be banned.
“Part of the laws that came along with the Sedition Act were that you couldn’t speak in German, you couldn’t preach from the pulpit in German, and you sure as heck couldn’t have a German book,” Amy Cannata said.
Cannata was the Montana State University Billings guest speaker representing the Montana Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for the nationwide Banned Books Week from Sept. 28 to Oct. 8. “Too Dangerous for the Big Sky?” was the title for the Montana program that toured across the state.
Cannata became passionate about free speech issues and the importance of them after living abroad in oppressive Saudi Arabia as a child, and then working as a journalist in her early career.
As detailed in Clemens P. Work’s book “Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West,” 76 men and three woman were convicted under the Sedition Act. Forty-one Montanans - including one woman - were sentenced up to 20 years with $20,000 fines.
During this time of nationalistic fervor, “They would take books like ‘Deutsche Lieder’ and have big book burnings all over the state of Montana.”
The National Civil Liberties Bureau, a precursor to the ACLU, began defending people’s First Amendment Rights during these turbulent World War I times. The war was followed by the early 1920s Red Scare, in which thousands of people deemed communist sympathizers were rounded up and arrested without warrants.
The history of banned books in Montana goes back to 1902, when 19-year-old Canadian born author Mary Maclane wrote an autobiographical novel of her life while growing up in Butte, “The Story of Mary Maclane.”
The oft sardonic, blunt and bleak novel, which contains passages like, “I have reached a truly wonderful state of miserable morbid unhappiness,” was not well-received by the locals.
“She wrote this best-selling novel, and Butte decided they didn’t want to have it. Not only was she ‘promoting corruption and a bad lifestyle,’ she had the audacity to insult Butte and its citizens. It created a storm of controversy,” Cannata said.
She joked, “So this is evidence that the more things change, the more they stay the same, because I think Butte’s still fighting that battle.”
One book that has been perpetually challenged in schools all across the United States is J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.”
“I don’t think that book will ever leave the top 10 list of books being challenged for banning,” Cannata said.
Books in Montana that have been challenged more recently include Bret Easton Ellis’ graphic, dark-humored “American Psycho.” Ellis’ cult classic about a serial killer who worked on Wall Street in the 1980s was challenged in 1991 by the Flathead County Library because its sexual abuse scenes were deemed pornographic.
“When the committee went over it they were basically like, ‘You know what? It’s badly written, kind of boring, but not pornographic,’” Cannata said. “So it was retained in the Flathead County Library. And that’s a good thing that most of these books challenged survived the challenge.”
Lois Lowry’s award-winning children’s book called “The Giver” was challenged by Columbia Falls School in 1996. The 1984-styled book about a seemingly utopian society in the future delves into subjects such as infanticide and euthanasia.
“One of the key things about it is government and authority taking over every aspect of people’s lives,” Cannata noted. “To me, it seemed incredible that this book was challenged; here’s an example of people trying to take control of your life and not letting you to read a book you want to read.”
A compromise was made, and children were allowed to read the book with a parent’s approval.
Sexual education books that survived challenges over the years have included a woman’s health book called “Our Bodies, Ourselves” during the 1970s. A witty educational book aimed at adolescent teens called “The Guy Book” was challenged for its sexual content at Lockwood Elementary School in 2006.
“It got challenged, and interest in it skyrocketed,” Cannata said. “As soon as you tell a kid, ‘We don’t think you should be reading that book,’ you get way more coverage for the book and have way more people read it.”
The American Book Award-winning novel by Montana native James Welch, “Fools Crow,” has been a subject of controversy since 1999 after it was introduced into some high school curriculums.
Described by historian Dee Brown of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” fame as “the closest we will ever come to understanding what life was like for a western Indian,” the historical fiction novel chronicles the life of a Blackfeet man living in Montana in the post-Civil War era in which plains Indians faced a transition of whites encroaching on their territory.
The book details the event of the Jan. 23, 1870, Marias Massacre, in which a non-hostile Blackfeet camp was attacked and 173 men women and children were killed. More froze to death in the frigid temperatures after their teepees were burned.
The camp, already weakened from a previous smallpox epidemic, was made further defenseless by the absence of most of its men, who were out hunting. Chief Heavy Runner was gunned down first while trying to approach the 200 U.S. cavalry with a paper that proved he had friendly relations with the whites.
Unlike most challenged books where the ban suggestion comes from parents, “In Bozeman it was actually challenged by a student,” Cannata said. “A sophomore who objected to the sexual content and violence, and thought that it should only be allowed for older students.”
In 2007 a Helena student also claimed the book left disturbing images in his head, and his mother argued that teens are already exposed to too much violence through other media.
Bozeman and Helena ultimately decided to keep the book in their curriculum. Although there is a copy of it in the library, “Fools Crow” was banned from the Laurel High School curriculum.
“It’s the reality of what happened to the Native people in Montana. It’s sad for the young people of Laurel. They won’t get to learn about local Indian culture,” Cannata said. “It’s a novel, but it’s based on fact.”
The Laurel school board considered bringing “Fools Crow” back into the curriculum last year, but shelved the idea.
Other books recently challenged were a World War II book and Martin Gray’s autobiographical book about surviving the Holocaust, “For Those I Loved.” The challengers of those books were Holocaust deniers.
The first American Library Association-sponsored Banned Books Week coincided with the 1982 Supreme Court decision Board of Education vs. Pico, in which Justice Brennan announced that in the court’s judgment:
“In brief, we hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”
Jane Howell, who retired this year from the library director position at MSU Billings after working there since 1982, said that when people objected to passages in a book, she would ask them, “Well, have you read the whole book?”
More often than not, most people had just pulled “objectionable material” out of context without having read the whole thing before claiming it should be banned.
Cannatta said that many complaints about books just come from overly concerned parents.
“They’re afraid of what their children are reading,” she said. “But the wonderful thing about our country is people get to read what they want to without fear of consequences.”