How Do Books Get Banned?

Although the US government has engaged in small levels of book banning throughout its history, most books are banned or challenged on a more local scale.

“Challenging” a book is the attempt to ban a book from a library, school district, institution, organization, government entity, retailer, or publisher based on its content. Challenges can either result in the book being banned or they can be overturned and the book remains in circulation at the organization.

For example, a school might choose not to carry a book in its library, or a bookseller might refuse to sell a certain book, or a library might try to expunge a book from its collection. But official ordinances and rules that “ban” books are extremely difficult to make stick on any large scale in the United States because of our First Amendment rights to free speech and free press.  

However, attempts to ban books have made their way to the Supreme Court.

Most notably, in Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982), the Supreme Court split on the issue of whether local school boards could legally remove library books from schools without violating the First Amendment. Four Justices ruled that it was unconstitutional, four Justices concluded that it was, and one Justice concluded this was not a case the Supreme Court should rule upon. Pico was the first Supreme Court case to consider the right to receive information in a library setting under the First Amendment, but the court’s indecision resulted in an unclear precedent. Lower courts have also grappled with book banning such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Inc. v. Miami-Dade County School Board (2009) case, in which a Court of Appeals ruled that the School Board could indeed ban a book from its libraries if it was “factually inaccurate and thus educationally unsuitable.”

As of 2020, the top ten reasons books were challenged or banned, according to the American Library Association, included:

  1. sexual content (92.5% percent of books on the list)
  2. offensive language (61.5%)
  3. unsuited to age group (49%)
  4. religious viewpoint (26%)
  5. LGBTQIA+ content (23.5%)
  6. violence (19%)
  7. racism (16.5%)
  8. use of illegal substances (12.5%)
  9. “anti-family” content (7%)
  10. political viewpoint (6.5%)

Banned Books Week 2021: Young Adult Books

For Banned Books Week 2021, we considered examples of young adult books that have been banned throughout the United States. It is through the controversies and debates surrounding these books that the nature of censorship itself, especially in a country with such strong protections on the freedom of expression through the First Amendment, will be explored. Learn more >

Banned Books Week 2020: Maine Authors

For Banned Books Week 2020, we explored the nature of censorship and banning in the United States. Each book conveys a different lesson on how censorship works in a country with an established law protecting freedom of speech and press like the First Amendment. We took a look at the works of authors with a connection to Maine. Learn more >

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Benjamin Franklin

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