This Lawyer's Literal Job Is To Make Sure Banned Books Are A Thing Of The Past

Photo courtesy of Reyson Punzalan

When I speak with Abena Hutchful, she has just come from a day of protest, helping New York City school students — who marched in solidarity with the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, demanding nationwide action on gun violence — to recognize their Constitutional rights to organize and protest. Hutchful is the director of the Youth Free Expression Program at the National Coalition Against Censorship, a project that confronts in-school censorship of books and other media, and advocates for the right of young people to freely read, access information, and express their views. Hutchful, a lawyer with a background in human rights and media advocacy, took over the Youth Free Expression Program in 2017, after working as a communication specialist with the U.N. Refugee Agency in Ghana and Youth Action International in Liberia and Sierra Leone. She has also worked as a consultant for the Tanzania Evidence Law Reform Project, co-authoring model legislation for enhanced government transparency and accountability, as well as U.N. OCHA in Sudan, serving on the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism Task Force on Grave Violations Against Children.

“When I was working with organizations in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ghana, I was primarily working to promote access to education for young refugees and displaced people, and through the course of my advocacy I learned that young people can be effective communicators and advocates for themselves,” Hutchful tells Bustle. “Advocacy is sometimes much more powerful when you just point the mic at the person you’re advocating for. Those experiences really informed my work here, at the Youth Free Expression Project, because the aim of YFEP is to promote free expression in schools. We’re empowering young people to recognize censorship and fight against it, themselves. The purpose of this is to amplify the voices of young people, to teach students about their rights under the First Amendment and what they are entitled to in school, so that they can defend themselves.”

Hutchful tells Bustle why fighting against censorship and in favor of free speech is so important, especially for kids:

Hutchful Believes Reading Is A Fundamental Human Right

“Reading is so valuable because it teaches empathy," she tells Bustle. "To have access to literature written by different voices and from different perspectives creates a better understanding of diverse youth and allows students to confront what can sometimes be offensive views, in more constructive ways — in ways that promote understanding rather than conflict. I think if you were to expand that on a global scale, we would have more constructive and peaceful dialogue about topics that originate to offend.”

She Also Believes Young People Have The Right Not Just To Access Reading Material Of Their Choice, But Information As Well

“I see not just reading, but access to information as a fundamental human right. That is an important distinction, because often people think that book censorship is the only form of censorship students experience in school. Our Kids’ Right to Read Project defends against book censorship, but we also respond to censorship of the arts, censorship of access to online content in schools, the filtering of the internet in schools. I think we’re seeing that the more access to information you give young people, the better informed they are, and the better they’re able to make good and sound decisions — not just in education, but in society. It's important not just to provide access to books, but to provide access to information generally.

Even In A Culture Where Students Are Constantly Connected To The Internet — And Information — Via Smartphones, Hutchful Still Notes The Danger Of Banning Books


“What happens when a book is banned is that you implant in a child’s mind the idea that there is something they shouldn’t be reading — that there is something wrong with the ideas expressed in that book, and depending on what those ideas are, it can be really dangerous," she says. "For instance, banning a book like The Hate U Give — which is about a young black teenager who advocates for black lives and tries to fight against police brutality in her neighborhood. By making the argument that there is something non-educational or offensive about the messaging in that book, you can create biases that wouldn’t ordinarily exist. So yes, while a really interested student could access these books in a library or on their tablet, you deprive them of the opportunity to explore in the present, and they’re entitled to access those books.”

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Hutchful Says That Teaching Young People About Their Right To Free Expression Is A Key Component To Combating Bullying

“We’re finding that, more and more, students are entering college without a clear understanding of the value of the First Amendment, and how to effectively use their voices to bring about change," she says. "There are students who are engaging in protests, but not in effective protests. There are students who are hosting forums on important issues, but who are silencing speakers with different views. So, they’re not able to really learn anything new or learn how to reach a broader audience with their message. I think educating young people at a younger age prepares them to have more productive conversations about complicated issues. If we don’t encourage students to express themselves — to express their fears, their anxieties, their prejudices — that promotes shame in students who identify with lifestyles or ideologies that are considered taboo. But it also allows other students to harbor hateful thoughts without really being challenged on them."

"The discussions that happen in the margins or that happen in the dark — that’s where bullying behavior is born. So, I definitely think that the more you promote free expression in schools and the more you encourage students to share their feelings and ideas about identity, sex, and sexuality, the more you create safe spaces naturally within the classroom," she adds. "You redefine the classroom as a safe space, organically. I think if used as the only solutions to combat bullying, trigger warnings and designations of safe spaces are not adequate solutions; I think they can even counter free speech efforts.”

For Anyone Interested In Working To Combat Censorship And Book Banning And Defend Free Speech, Hutchful Offers Some Tips

Photo courtesy of Reyson Punzalan

“The first place I would encourage anybody who wants to be a free expression defender to look is where censorship happens the most, and that would be in schools and in cultural institutions," she says. "Where are new ideas constantly being introduced? Where might nonconforming ideas be suppressed? Certainly, operating in schools and libraries would be the first step. Working with artists in cultural spaces might be another great place to start. I also think that, many times, we don’t think about free expression put in action — how activists who are regularly censored online and whose protest rights are regularly limited or infringed upon, might bring new perspectives on how to advance free expression rights. So, I would encourage anybody interested in free expression to explore the impacts of censorship on activists as well.”