Book censorship in the United States

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Book censorship is the suppression of books considered, by the censors, as objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient for a variety of reasons. Book censorship can take multiple forms, including limiting access, challenging and banning. Broadly, censorship is defined as "the regulation of speech and other forms of expression by an entrenched authority."[1] The overall intent of censorship, in any form, is to act as "a kind of safeguard for society, typically to protect norms and values, censorship suppresses what is considered objectionable from a political, moral, or religious standpoint."[1] Book censorship, according to Henry Reichman, an English professor and author in topics pertaining to censorship, in the broadest sense "is the removal, suppression, or restricted circulation of literary, artistic, or educational material--of images, ideas, and information--on the grounds that these are morally or otherwise objectionable in the light of standards applied by the censor." [2]

The Marshall University Libraries, which conduct research on banned books in the United States, have defined a banned book as one that has been "removed from a library, classroom, etc."[3] and a challenged book as one that "has been requested to be removed from a library, classroom, etc."[3] by a censor. Censorship has been carried out in several localities in the United States by parents, school boards, lobbying groups, and other stakeholders in education, including clergy, librarians and teachers, all of who are referred to as censors.[4] Banning, the most permanent and effective method of censorship, begins with a challenge from a censor and then progresses to the point that the book is no longer available to any student in the school, library or district.[5] People For The American Way, an organization concerned with protecting progressive values such as equal rights and freedom of speech, reported that in the school year from 1991–1992, the success of censors in having books removed in some capacity rose to 41 percent from 34 percent in the previous year.[6] In response, several professional organizations such as the American Library Association (ALA), the Freedom to Read Foundation, and the National Coalition Against Censorship [7] have employed various initiatives to help combat book censorship in all its forms.[8][9] Combating book censorship with their advocacy for First Amendment rights, these long-standing organizations have been at the center of multiple Supreme Court cases spanning from the early 1970s.[10][11]

Origins of book censorship in the United States[edit]

Book censorship in the United States began in the mid-nineteenth century. One of the first publicized cases in America was the banning of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in Trinity College.[12] This work contains Darwin’s theory of evolution and was banned in other parts of America, notably including Tennessee, in the early twentieth century.[13] The practice of banning books became more prevalent in the mid-twentieth century as progressive writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T. S. Eliot began their literary careers.[13] These authors were all modernists and did not refrain from revealing their opinions about controversial subject matter. For example, Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms depicts the grim realities of World War I.[14] The tale of the two lovers, Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley, also includes graphic details of a childbirth gone awry. This story strays greatly from traditionalist literature, the majority of American literature at the time, which depicts good prevailing over evil. Cities such as Boston banned this novel in 1929, labeling the book "salacious."[14] In addition, Boston in the 1920s censored other novels such as The American Mercury, Elmer Gantry, An American Tragedy, Strange Interlude, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The rise of censorship in Boston aroused local opposition.[15] The Harvard Crimson in 1929 wrote, "it has become so tiresome to reproach Boston for their constant repression of creative work, that we are beginning to surrender in despair."[16] The Boston censors countered that the censorship was justified because according to the U.S. federal political system, it is the duty of the states to implant their educational policies.[17] The texts selected for the schools are ultimately approved by the state. School boards, as part of the Tenth Amendment, do have the right to select which state-approved text should be placed in the libraries. Over the years, parents on school boards have challenged their state’s selection of certain books for their libraries. The main reasons of the parents and school boards is to protect children from content deemed by them as inappropriate.

Legal context[edit]

Multiple cases on the right to freedom of reading, which is considered by many liberal organizations to be encompassed in the first amendment, have reached state supreme courts and United States courts of appeals. Cases like Evans V. Selma Union High School District of Fresno County in 1924 ruled "The mere act of purchasing a book to be added to the school library does not carry with it any implication of the adoption of the theory or dogma contained therein, or any approval of the book itself except as a work of literature fit to be included in a reference library."[18] In Minarcini V. Strongsville City School District in 1976, the court upheld the school district's decision to not allow certain texts to be used in a curriculum, but "found the removal of the books from the library to be unconstitutional, referring to the library as a 'storehouse of knowledge.'"[19] Censorship has also been addressed by the United States Supreme Court in the case Island Trees School District v. Pico in 1982. This case represents the school board’s desire to emplace certain values in the children versus the students’ First Amendment rights. The court came to the conclusion that, "The First Amendment imposes limitations upon a local school board's exercise of its discretion to remove books from high school and junior high school libraries."[20] The case was brought to the Supreme Court by five students who challenged their school board's decision to remove nine books from the school's library, after a challenge came from an organization called Parents of New York United.[21] The Supreme Court ruled that, under the First Amendment, "Local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books".[22] Justice William Brennan, who wrote the opinion, reasoned that "Local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs, but such discretion must be exercised in a manner that comports with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment".[22] Brennan continues that school boards do have "absolute discretion to choose academic materials"[22] and what texts are used in classrooms, so removing books from curriculum would not be unconstitutional, as long as a school board's discretion is not "exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner."[22] Finally, he comments on the library, saying it is a distinct institution as it represents the First Amendment's "role in affording the public access to discussion, debate and the dissemination of information and ideas."[22] The result of the Supreme Court case has not, to the present day, ceased the protests of parents and school boards to protect children from content they believe to be “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy."[20]

Reasons for censorship[edit]


Books are often challenged by concerned parents who desire to protect their children from the themes or content within those books. As of the past ten years the top three reasons cited for challenging materials as reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom were:

  1. the material was considered to be "sexually explicit"
  2. the material contained "offensive language"
  3. the material was "unsuited to any age group"[23]

However the reasons for censorship are not limited to just these three. There are more than twenty reasons according to the American Library Association for censorship including: anti-ethnic, cultural sensitivity, racism, sexism, anti-family, nudity, offensive language, other offensive item, abortion, drug/alcohol/smoking, gambling, gangs, violence, suicide, homosexuality, sexually explicit, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, occult/satanism, unsuited for age group, inaccurate, technical errors, and other objections.[24] According to the People for the American Way, an organization that fights to protect progressive values, such as equal rights and freedom of speech, "sexually explicit"[25] material was the most frequent cause of book challenges in the decade from 1990–2000, while "offensive language"[25] was responsible for the second-most amount of book challenges.

Social reasons[edit]

Numerous books have been suppressed “because of language, racial characterization, or depiction of drug use, social class, or sexual orientation of the characters, or other social differences that the challengers viewed as harmful to the readers.”[26] There are many examples of books being suppressed on social grounds in the United States. Dawn Sova authored Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds, a novel that lists books that have been banned or challenged on the preceding grounds to raise awareness of why books are censored. A few examples of this type of censorship are J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel), and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. All of these stories have main characters who disrespect authority and live not according to societal norms and social rules.[26] Holden Caulfield, Randle McMurphy, and Huck Finn are similar in their use of vulgar language and anti-traditionalist world views.[26] All of these books have themes of characters who are idolized for breaking the rules and living life that is full of pleasures instead of listening and adhering to traditional order. Sova suggests that censors have sought to ban these books because they fear that the rebellious nature of the characters will lead children to follow them, meaning they will have no respect for their parents, the law or teachers.[26]

Political reasons[edit]

Books have been suppressed by both local governments and the federal government of the United States for their political content. Books that are perceived to promote communism or socialism have a history of being suppressed in the United States.[27] The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was heavily challenged and restricted in libraries across the country because of its pro-Soviet themes, especially during the Red Scare in the 1950s.[27] Books with dystopian themes, such as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World were also challenged in the mid twentieth century United States due to un-American themes.[27] They are ranked 9th and 16th respectively on the American Library Association's list of Banned and Challenged Classics.[28]

Sexual reasons[edit]

Several books have been censored in the United States due to their sexual themes as well.[29] The children's book And Tango Makes Three has been one of the most challenged books in the 21st century due to the plot, which focuses on two homosexual penguins in the Central Park Zoo.[30] Tango is one of several books that have been censored because of homosexual themes. James Joyce's Ulysses (novel) is another example of a book that has been suppressed for obscenity, but rather than homosexuality, Ulysses was thought far too inappropriate because of the excessive sexual acts and masturbation in the book.[29] Ulysses was the subject of a court challenge in 1933, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, in order to label the book obscene and pornographic.[31] Judge John M. Woolsey ruled the book was not obscene, marking a notable change in how the courts viewed obscenities in novels.[31]

Religious reasons[edit]

In the United States, books have also been challenged for attacking or disagreeing with religious truths.[32] On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin has been challenged and suppressed since its publication due to its groundbreaking theories on Evolution. In 1925, the Butler Act was enacted in Tennessee, banning the teaching of evolutionary theories statewide.[33] Other works, such as the Harry Potter series, have also been challenged thanks to themes that are perceived to promote witchcraft and the occult.[30]

Well-known books that have been censored[edit]

Of Mice and Men[edit]

John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, first published in 1937, is considered an American classic and listed as the 12th best novel of the 20th century by the Radcliffe Publishing Course.[34] It has remained a popular choice for teaching in English curriculums because of its simplistic nature, but profound message.[6] Regardless, the novel appeared on the ALA's top ten most frequently challenged books in 2001, 2003 and 2004.[35] H.N. Foerstel, the author of Banned in the U.S.A., a novel documenting the cases of censorship in the United States, states that "the censors claim to be protecting the young and impressionable from this tragic tale of crude heroes speaking vulgar language within a setting that implies criticism of our social system."[6] The main reasons for censorship, as noted by the Office of Intellectual Freedom, are "offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group, violence".[35] A case against the novella began in Normal, Illinois in 2004 when the Unit 5 Diversity Advisory Committee, a group of parents and community members in the school district, proposed a set of books that could be read instead of Steinbeck's novel that addressed the same themes as Of Mice and Men, but did not have the racial slurs that the group objected to.[36] The group also suggested that the book should be removed from the permanent, required reading list for a sophomore English curriculum, however, they did not ask that the book be banned.[36] The group appreciated that the novel addressed injustices of the past, but believed the alternative books that they proposed "address multicultural and socially sensitive issues in a meaningful, respectful manner",[36] whereas Steinbeck's novel does not. Another case occurred in 2005 in Olathe, Kansas when a parent, Coni Leoni, asked the school board to remove Of Mice and Men from her son's ninth-grade English curriculum. Leoni read the novel, and "objected to the adult behaviors, such as drinking and vulgar language, in the book.[37] She said she found 160 instances of profanity" in the novel, but the school board members ended up agreeing with the educators who argued for keeping the novel in the curriculum and the novella was not banned.[37]

To Kill a Mockingbird[edit]

To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee, rose to fame quickly after winning the Pulitzer Prize and has since been considered an American classic. The novel confronts issues of rape and racial inequality, but is highly regarded for its universal themes that can appeal to many readers.[6] The novel has been censored since its 1960 publication and appeared on the ALA's top ten most frequently challenged books in 2009 and 2011.[35] The novel is objectionable because it deals with racial injustice, class systems, gender roles, loss of innocence while discussing violence, rape, incest and authority, while using strong language.[38] In July 1996, the Superintendent of the Moss Point School District in Mississippi announced To Kill a Mockingbird would be reviewed by a group of parents, community members and teachers after a complaint came from Reverend Greg Foster about the novel's racial descriptions and discussion of sexual activity. The novel was ultimately banned from being accessed in the school district.[6] In 1997 in Burleson, Texas, the school board trustees agreed on a policy that that would ban any books that used profanity, meaning they would also have to remove To Kill a Mockingbird from classrooms. Teachers who were concerned that this classic book would have to be removed urged the trustees to reconsider their policy, which was quickly replaced with a new policy that required teachers to instead send reading lists with detailed analysis to the parents of the students reading Lee's novel.[6] Another case began with a resident in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, in 2008, who objected to having To Kill A Mockingbird as part of a high school English curriculum. The challenger had problems with how African-Americans were treated in the novel and feared that the descriptions may upset black students who were reading the novel. Instead of banning the book, the school board voted unanimously to keep the book in the curriculum and instead responded to fears of upsetting black students with racial sensitivity training for teachers who used the novel in their classrooms.[39]

The Catcher in the Rye[edit]

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, was first published in 1951 and has since been frequently challenged and frequently taught in schools. In the 1980s, it "had the unusual distinction of being the nation's most frequently censored book, and, at the same time, the second most frequently taught novel in the public schools."[6] The American Library Association deemed it the tenth most challenged book from 1990–1999.[40] Since then, it has appeared on the top ten most frequently challenged book lists published by the ALA in 2001 and 2005.[35] The novel also appears as the second best and most classic novel of the 20th century based on a list developed by the Radcliffe Publishing Course.[34] The majority of the objections have been over the novel's inappropriate language, but the book also has mentions of prostitutions, sexuality and underage drinking, as cited by the book review published by the organization Focus on the Family, an American, conservative group.[41] The ALA cites the reasons for censorship as "offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group".[35] The first case of censorship the book ever witnessed was in 1960 when it was ban in a Tulsa, Oklahoma school district and the eleventh grade teacher who had assigned the book was fired because of the questionable content of the book.[42] A case in Paris, Maine in 1996 allowed for The Catcher in the Rye to continue being taught at the district high school, but mandated practices that would tell parents what books their children read, ultimately leaving it in the hands of parents to decide what their children should read, rather than the school.[6] In 1997 in Marysville School District in California, the superintendent removed The Catcher in the Rye from the required reading curriculum for a junior level English course in an attempt to avoid "polarization over a book"[6] after multiple expressed concerns from parents over the book's profanity and sexual encounters.[6] Another case occurred in 2005 in North Berwick, Maine when a parent of a freshman English student requested the book be banned because of its content, which was determined inappropriate through a scanning of the book and the SparkNotes research page. The parent was concerned with the detailed interaction with a prostitute and that the protagonist was a "drop-out student who smokes, drinks, uses foul language and is a 'pervert'".[43] The board voted to keep the book in the freshmen English curriculum, but would ask teachers to provide information to the parents about why the book, and other texts, were being studied in their classroom.[44] A case in 2000 in the Limestone County School District in Alabama initially had the school board ban the book all together, but then determined that the novel was suitable for students who were sophomores, juniors and seniors in the high school, disallowing for students in the freshman class from reading the novel.[6] A different case in Boron CA during 1989, there was a debate over the novel. Parents upset with their freshman children being exposed to the language and suggestive themes in the novel complained to the school that the book has no place in the curriculum. Vickie Swindler, one of the parents who expressed her discontent over the school’s usage of the book, cited her daughter reading passages to her friends that contained language she did not tolerate.[45] Along a similar vein other parents argued that the author’s characters and message are not a good role model for the age group. The school board eventually voted on the matter of whether or not to ban the book from the high schools in the county. In a four to one vote the school board ruled in favor of a ban.[45] In response and in defense of the Catcher in the Rye Shelley Keller-Gage, the teacher who had originally assigned the novel, said that, “these people are being just like Holden, the ones who are trying to censor the book, they are trying to be the catchers in the rye”.[45] This case is just one of a great number spanning across the country for numerous different reasons. The Catcher in the Rye however as often as it is challenged, remains a bestselling book in the United States.[46]

The Harry Potter series[edit]

The seven-book Harry Potter series by J.K.Rowling has been a cult-favorite franchise since the first novel came out in 1997, leading to the release of eight movies based on the series and an amusement park inspired by the characters. Harry Potter has brought similar amount of controversy as it has obsession: the series was the most frequently challenged book in 2001 and 2002, before falling to second-most challenged book in 2003.[35] The ALA cites the reasons for censorship as "anti-family, occult/Satanism, religious viewpoint, violence",[35] but the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas's "Free People Read Freely" report also cited concerns over sexual content.[47] In one case in Lawrenceville, Georgia in 2007, a parent asked that the Harry Potter books be kept out of classrooms, suggesting that the novels promote the practice of witchcraft and contain violent content that is not suitable for her fifteen-year-old daughter to read as she was becoming inspired to try witchcraft like the characters do in the series.[48] School board attorney, Victoria Sweeney, presented evidence for why the novels should be kept in the classroom, noting that they encourage children's fascination with reading and explore themes such as good triumphing over evil.[48] The board ultimately unanimously decided to keep the books in the classroom since they had the potential to spark creativity and imagination, as well as a love for learning and reading.[48] In Lake Los Angeles, California, the school board in Wilsona School District passed a policy that prohibited books that "depict drinking alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex, including 'negative sexuality,' implied or explicit nudity, cursing, violent crime or weapons, gambling, foul humor and 'dark content.'"[49] These guidelines removed Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince from the school district's library because of mentions of these topics. The goal of the new policy was to make the library, which served students aged five to fifteen, more age-appropriate.[49] St. Joseph's School in Wakefield, Massachusetts allowed its students to select summer reading books in 2007, which led many students to read installments from the Harry Potter series. Once they returned to school, they found that these books had been removed from their library by Reverend Ron Barker, who did so because he believed that themes of sorcery and witchcraft did not belong in a Catholic school. While the Catholic Church has no clear standing on the books, the parents in the school district are divided over the Reverend's actions: some appreciate his efforts to protect students from witchcraft, while others wish the books were still accessible.[50]

List of censored books[edit]

The American Library Association, specifically the Office of Intellectual Freedom, has maintained a list of books, since 1990, that have been banned or censored in the United States. This is an incomplete list of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that have been challenged or censored in the United States.

Further cases[edit]

The Grapes of Wrath[edit]

In August 1939, the Board of Supervisors of Kern County, California passed a resolution to ban The Grapes of Wrath from county libraries and schools. The head librarian of the Kern County Free Library, Gretchen Knief, despite personal protest to the supervisors, complied with the ban. The ban is said to have been largely a product of the infrastructure of a county whose economy relied heavily upon agriculture, and Knief’s compliance, a contemporary lack of official support from the field of librarianship. The ban was rescinded in 1941.[68]

Flowers for Algernon[edit]

Flowers for Algernon is on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999 at number 43.[69] The reasons for the challenges vary, but usually center on those parts of the novel in which Charlie struggles to understand and express his sexual desires. Many of the challenges have proved unsuccessful, but the book has occasionally been removed from school libraries, including some in Pennsylvania and Texas.[70]

Operation Dark Heart[edit]

Operation Dark Heart, a 2010 memoir by U.S. Army intelligence officer Lt. Col Anthony Shaffer, is notable for the lengths the U.S. Defense Department went to in an attempt to censor information that the book revealed, even after it had already been distributed free of changes. Both censored and original copies of the book are available in the public domain.[71]

The Family Book[edit]

In 2003 the children's book The Family Book was removed from the curriculum of the Erie, Illinois school system due to the book's representation of same-sex families.

Fun Home[edit]

In October 2006, a resident of Marshall, Missouri attempted to have the graphic novel Fun Home by Alison Bechdel removed from the Marshall Public Library.[72] These challenges are significant because the fact that they are filled with illustrations make them more likely to be accessible to younger children, and therefore, more susceptible to challenges when the content is considered mature for the audience.[73]

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn[edit]

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain was listed by the American Library Association as the 5th most commonly banned book in the U.S. due to supposed racism in 2007.[74] NewSouth Books received media attention for publishing an expurgated edition of the work that censored the words nigger and Injun. A parent in a school district in Arizona attempted to have the novel banned in a case that reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in the case Monteiro v. The Tempe Union High School District (1998)[75]

Organizations that oppose book censorship[edit]

Established in 1876, The American Library Association, the world's largest and oldest library association, provides information and statistics on the main reasons for book banning and the most frequently challenged books. Also The American Library Association's website has noted the top three reasons for book censorship in the United States. The motives for this controversial practice are as following: the material was considered to be "sexually explicit”, the content contained "offensive language”, and the book was "unsuited to any age group."[76] The Freedom to Read Foundation focuses more on the legal issues regarding book censorship. One of their main objections is to, “to supply legal counsel, which counsel may or may not be directly employed by the Foundation, and otherwise to provide support to such libraries and librarians as are suffering legal injustices.”[77] Founded on November 20, 1969, the association made its first U.S. Supreme Court appeal in Kaplan v. California.[78] The case involved an “adult” bookstore owner who was convicted of, “violating a California obscenity statute by selling a plain-covered unillustrated book containing repetitively descriptive material of an explicitly sexual nature.”[79] The Freedom to Read Foundation brought the case before the Supreme Court and filed, “a motion asking the Court to consider an amicus brief addressing constitutional questions posed by the new three-prong test for obscenity in Miller v. California.” The motion was ultimately denied as the Court ruled that First Amendment rights only applied to, “serious literature or political works”.[79]

Banned Books Week[edit]

Usually taking place during the last week of September, Banned Books Week, is the product of a national alliance between various organizations who strive to bring awareness to banned books.[80] Founded by first amendment and library activist Judy Krug and the Association of American Publishers in 1982 with the goal of bringing banned books “to the attention of the American public".[81][82] By the year 2000, the intention of this event expanded to “bring[ing] together the entire book community; librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types, in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”[83] The coalition that now sponsors the week each year consists of American Library Association (ALA), the American Booksellers Association, American Booksellers foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), Association of American Publishers, American Society of Journalists and Authors, and has support from the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. Now the goal of Banned Book Week is not only to invite students and other readers to look at censored or challenged books, but also advocates for literary freedom in schools, libraries, and all places involving books. Its most current goal is “to teach the importance of our first Amendment rights and the power of literature, and to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed availability of information in a free society".[80] In recent years banned book week has expanded from just books to addressing the filtering any academic material by schools. This includes software that removes services such as YouTube, social media, and games. The American Association of School Librarians stance on all filtering is that it is important for students to go past “the requirements set for by the Federal Communications Commission in its Child Internet Protection Act”.[84]

However, while the week generally receives a positive reception, that does not mean it is criticism free. Tom Minnery, vice president of Focus on the Family, claims that “the ALA has irresponsibly perpetrated the ‘banned’ books lie for too long” and that “nothing is ‘banned’“ and Ruth Graham from Slate Magazine agrees.[85][86] She thinks that celebrating book banning week conflates issues of book censorship in a public library versus a school library were actual cases of censorship are rather minimal.[86] Groups who generally challenge numerous books, such as Focus on the Family, often stand opposed to Banned Book Week, but that doesn’t mean everyone is. Maddie Crum, a writer for the Huffington Post, argues in defense of the week, stating that the week helps to keep us aware of the fact that Americans’ right of free expression is often limited and in many cases not easily won.[87]

See also[edit]


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  3. ^ a b "Welcome to Banned Books". Marshall University. September 7, 2016. 
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  5. ^ Karolides, Nicholas (2005). 120 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature. ISBN 978-0-8160-8232-2. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Foerstel, H.N. (2002). Banned in the U.S.A.: A reference guide to book censorship in schools and public libraries. Westport: Greenwood Press. pp. xx. 
  7. ^ "About Us". National Coalition Against Censorship. Retrieved November 6, 2016. 
  8. ^ "Purpose, Goals, Roles | American Logistics Association". Retrieved 2016-11-06. 
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