People For the American Way Foundation

Schools and Censorship: Banned Books

“Fear of serious injury alone cannot justify oppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”
—U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941)

The American Association of School Administrators and the American Library Association define censorship as: “[T]he removal, suppression, or restricted circulation of literary, artistic, or educational materials — of images, ideas, and information — on the grounds that these are morally or otherwise objectionable in light of standards applied by the censor.”[1] As long as people have endeavored to communicate, others have sought to prevent them. Every day someone tries to control or otherwise restrict oral expressions, broadcast messages, or written words. Almost every idea, at one point, has proven to be objectionable to someone.

However, our basic right — the freedom to express ourselves as we see fit — is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States’ Constitution, ensuring the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unpopular or unorthodox. In fact, the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

But despite this, continued attempts to censor words, thoughts and opinions remain constant. The American Civil Liberties Union explains that “the urge to censor is hardly the monopoly of any political group. But the greatest threat today comes from the fundamentalist right, with its ideological hostility to other religious or philosophical systems, to homosexuality, to sex education, and indeed to the basic idea of secular education.”[2]

Possibly because of their ubiquity, school and public library books are among the most visible targets and are frequently challenged for various reasons. According to the American Library Association, “a challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials [in a published book], based upon the objections of a person or group… Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.”[3]

Between 1990 and 2000, there were 6,364 challenges reported to or recorded by the Office for Intellectual Freedom. Seventy-one percent of the challenges were to materials in schools or school libraries. Another twenty-four percent were to material in public libraries. Sixty percent of the challenges were brought by parents, fifteen percent by patrons, and nine percent by administrators.

Some of the bases for these challenges were stated as follows:

  • 1,607 were challenges to “sexually explicit” material
  • 1,427 were challenges to material considered to use “offensive language”
  • 1,256 were challenges to material considered non age-appropriate or “unsuited to age group”
  • 842 were challenges to material with an “occult theme or promoting the occult or Satanism”
  • 737 were challenges to material considered to be “violent”
  • 515 were challenges to material with a homosexual theme or “promoting homosexuality”
  • 419 were challenges to material “promoting a religious viewpoint”
  • 317 challenges to materials that included “nudity”

Additional Resources

End Notes

1 Henry Reichman, Censorship and Selection: Issues and Answers for Schools, Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators and American Library Association, 1988.
2 Barbara Miner, “Reading, Writing, and Censorship,” Rethingking Schools, v. 12, number 3, Spring 1998.
3 See the American Library Association website.