“The wider availability that books have, the better off we are. “
We spoke with Spencer Stephens, former journalist and Maine author of the books Church of Golf and Blood Lily for the ninth episode of our First Amendment interview series, One on 1.
As an author, Stephens can appreciate the role that the First Amendment has, and shares with us his opinion on censorship, banning books, and how you can use the First Amendment in your daily life.
SPENCER STEPHENS: Most authors pray that someday, somebody will try to ban their book because one of the best ways to guarantee that you’re gonna get attention for a book is to say, “We are banning this book. You can’t put it on the shelves. You can’t read, you can’t talk about it.”
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: Hi, I’m Maxwell Nosbisch, Manager of Visitor Experiences at the First Amendment Museum located in Augusta, Maine. Today, I have a very interesting guest with me. Just in time for Banned Books Week, it’s author and writer, Spencer Stephens.
Stephens is the author of two books, Blood Lily and Church of Golf. He also resides on the coast of Maine. So, welcome Spencer.
SPENCER STEPHENS: Thank you very much, Max. Appreciate being here.
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: Why do you think the First Amendment is important? What’s its purpose and goal?
SPENCER STEPHENS: If we as a nation hope to be able to have conversations about ways to actually improve our nation, to improve our way of life, to solve problems, we have to be able to be honest with each other. We have to be able to be forthright in criticisms o existing governors, existing presidents, existing members of Congress, what have you.
If we don’t have that, we have a really hard time getting to the heart of matters which means we have a hard time moving forward as a society and a nation.
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: How has the First Amendment intersected with your career as an author?
SPENCER STEPHENS: I was a journalist and wrote for daily papers, one in North Carolina, one in Maryland. I wrote tons of stories that were critical of, fill in the blank, some existing source of authority. And without the First Amendment, I could not have written those stories.
In the book that I most recently published, Blood Lily, it’s about a woman who is subject to oppression from the religious zealots, for lack of a better word, in her home country of Saudi Arabia. And she dreams of escaping to beautiful Maine.
And she’s free to keep the portions of Islam that she believes in and feels comfortable with. She’s free to jettison those that she’s not comfortable with. She’s free to speak to friends and neighbors about her ideas and thoughts. She doesn’t have to worry about whether somebody she’s speaking to is going to to to rat her out to the authorities as a dissident or as a troublemaker.
Storylines like that all come from the idea that we have that freedom of speech and we have freedom of religion. That our country is a haven and is one that allows people to reach their full potential because they can do and believe and speak freely.
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: Do you think censorship is ever appropriate or could be justified?
SPENCER STEPHENS: That’s a really hard question and I think the answer is probably yes.
Some examples come to mind – that it’s generally not legal to yell fire in a crowded theater if there’s not a fire there, and you might refer that to that as a form of censorship.
There are occasions when there are military plans or sensitive plans that if revealed publicly might endanger the lives of people who are involved in trying to do positive things, saving lives.
There may be cases like that where it is permissible. I think most of us would agree.
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: Give me your thoughts on banning books or the idea of banning books.
SPENCER STEPHENS: It’s a wonderful way to get people interested in the book and wondering what it is they’re missing out on.
As a practice, it’s terrible. It’s destructive. People seem to have the idea that if they take this printed material and chuck it in the trash can, nobody will know about it. Nobody will talk about it. You can kill the idea which is obviously quite false. The wider availability that books have, the better off we are.
One of the more popular places in America to ban books are in prisons. I just get angry when I hear that because there’s nobody in this country who benefits more from an opportunity to read to expand their thinking and their mind than the people who are sitting in prison, who have been segregated from society and are looking for a way back in.
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: Outside your role as an author, how do you exercise your First Amendment rights on a daily basis?
SPENCER STEPHENS: I do it by talking on video phone calls with Max and expressing my opinion about legal matters. I do it when I go to town council meetings and I stand up and speak about plans that are before the city council.
Every day, when you open your mouth and you speak and offer opinions or ideas, you are exercising your First Amendment rights and that’s what I do every day.
It is an important guide to everything that happens in our society, we have to be able to speak our minds. We have to have that freedom and without it, we are at a significant disadvantage.
When I’m daring enough to offer opinions, I’m always mindful of the fact that I have a right to do that and I’m very
pleased for that right.
MAXWELL NOSBISCH: Thanks again, Spencer for joining us.
SPENCER STEPHENS: Thank you, Max. Appreciate the chance to talk.