Home » News analysis » What is book banning? And what isn’t?

By Ken Paulson, published on April 29, 2024

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Books are being targeted in America’s public and school libraries in increasing numbers, according to a new report by PEN America, a free-speech policy center that advocates on behalf of authors and publishers.

“PEN America recorded more school book bans during the first six months of the 2023-24 school year than in all of 2022-23. This escalation follows two years of coordinated efforts to censor books in libraries and classrooms across the country, restricting young people’s freedom to read and learn,” according to the organization.

What is book banning? Under what circumstances does the letter or spirit of the First Amendment come into play? (The First Amendment doesn’t apply to private schools.) Are all expressions of concern about content censorious?

The basics

Curating vs. book banning: Every day professional librarians have to make decisions about books. What books are worth buying with public funds? Which books are in demand? What topics are needed to fill gaps in the current collection? Do the books in the aggregate serve the entire community? Making these decisions is not censorship, it’s curation.

The right to petition: It’s also not censorship to ask that a book’s content be reviewed. Yes, that can sometimes begin a path that leads to censorship, but exercising your right to freedom of speech and petition is at the core of the First Amendment.

Assessing books in a fair and thoughtful way: Politics and religious beliefs often come into play when requests for review or demands for removal come before school boards and city councils. In Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that the motive for banning books is an important factor in determining whether a government body suppressed a book. Books may not be removed from libraries for political reasons, and it’s incumbent upon school districts and municipalities to establish a process for carefully reviewing books before removing them.

Instead, we frequently see government bodies reflexively remove books because just one person files a complaint or someone walks in with an extensive list copied off the internet. “Let’s take it off the shelf just to be safe” is not a defensible strategy. 

Requiring that complainants actually read the entire book and make a substantive case for removing it is a good first step in that process, and those hurdles are increasingly being adopted. Most important, though, is that books be removed only after thoughtful review by a committee convened for that purpose. 

Access to books can be limited in a variety of ways: Moving a book to another location in a library can be curation or it can be censorship. In the former circumstance, a librarian is deciding that a book is in fact inappropriate or was mis-shelved in a young-readers section. In the latter, the ideas in the book are being hidden because of external objections. 

Typically library cards are set up by parents for their young children, but the dynamics change as students age and want to obtain material independently of parents. This situation typically arises when a book is moved to keep it out of the hands of middle school and high school students, often a book for young adults with sexual elements. Yet it’s often that age group that is most in need of information and perspective they’re not getting from others.

We too often forget that young Americans are citizens with constitutional rights, which include the rights to read and gain access to information. We should also applaud and reinforce any interest in reading in our video-driven society. 

Removing books for the short or long term from the shelves is outright book-banning, a decision by officials or administrators that certain ideas are no longer appropriate at libraries — institutions that historically have exemplified the marketplace of ideas.  

Though there are degrees of book censorship, there’s also commonality. Most efforts to ban books stem from an impulse to suppress ideas with which someone disagrees. 

It’s common for those seeking to remove books to describe them as “obscene,” but that’s actually a legal standard with a very high bar. Material is obscene only if when examined as a whole it appeals to sexual interests, is patently offensive to the average citizen because of that sexuality and “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

It’s that last clause that makes obscenity so hard to establish. For a book to make it to the shelves to a public or school library — selected by librarians or educators — it would almost invariably have some merit. Many banned books have in fact been recognized with literary awards. It’s that visibility that can make them targets.

The obscenity standard for minors is similar, but ratcheted down a bit to require that a book be sexual and harmful to minors when taken as a whole. A book with substantive content, even if controversial, would be unlikely to be harmful as a whole.

School and library boards rarely document genuine harm to students, something that would best be done by psychologists and child-development experts. It’s a legal, not anecdotal standard. 


Book banning is both real and damaging

Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center and dean emeritus of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University.The Free Speech Center newsletter offers a digest of First Amendment- and news media-related news every other week. Subscribe for free here: https://bit.ly/3kG9uiJ


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