What Is Book Banning, and How Does It Affect Society?
The United States has a long history of book banning, and it’s not only picking up steam—it’s also becoming more problematic
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Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in America—unless, apparently, you write a book that some people disagree with. Book banning is not new: This form of censorship began in what is now the United States in the 17th century and never went away, although there have been periods when politically motivated moral panics made these challenges against “controversial” books far more frequent. Unfortunately, we’re living in one of those periods right now.
The crusade to suppress already-marginalized voices has picked up steam in recent years, with increasing numbers of parents, activists, school boards and other local policymakers seizing the opportunity to enact bans and other restrictions on books in schools and public libraries. Some of the most frequently banned books include critically acclaimed titles, like Maus by Art Spiegelman, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds.
But what does book banning actually entail? Who decides which books stay or go? And is book banning even legal? Here’s what you need to know about this form of censorship and the cultural impact of banned books.
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What is book banning?
Book banning is the act of removing materials from a school or library’s collection as a result of objections from groups or individuals who say they need to protect others—typically children—from the difficult information or ideas contained in the books, according to the ALA. But there’s more nuance to it than that, says Emily Knox, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s School of Information Science and the author of Book Banning in 21st-Century America.
Though book banning as we know it today primarily focuses on attempts to keep certain works of fiction out of the hands of impressionable children and young adults, the first recorded instances of this censorship practice in Colonial America centered on objections to religious and political texts deemed too dangerous for the general public. Early examples include New English Canaan by Thomas Morton (1637), The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption by William Pynchon (1650) and The Christian Commonwealth by John Eliot (1659).
This form of censorship continued throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, perhaps most famously as a reaction to the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel about the cruelties of slavery and the first American work of fiction to become an international bestseller. Widely banned in the American South for being “abolitionist propaganda” at the time of its release, Stowe’s book continues to be challenged in the United States today for other reasons, like its inclusion of racial slurs.
Roughly two decades after the controversy surrounding Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Congress passed the Comstock Act of 1873, which made it illegal for anyone to possess, sell, give away, exhibit or send obscene books, pamphlets, pictures, drawings or advertisements through the mail, along with anything else considered lewd, lascivious, immoral or indecent. Between 1874 and 1915, an estimated 3,500 people were prosecuted under this law, although only about 350 were convicted.
Book banning today
While policies like the Comstock Act sound outdated, censorship of books in the United States never went away. And if the current surge in attempts to ban books is any indication, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
This most recent wave of book banning began at the end of 2021, at a rate outpacing previous decades, according to a November 2021 statement from the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). Between June 1 and Nov. 29, 2021, OIF tracked 155 unique censorship incidents—numbers that OIF Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone called “unprecedented.”
It’s only gotten more prevalent from there. Pen America recently released a report that found 1,477 instances of books being banned just in the first half of the 2022–2023 school year, a 28% increase from the previous six months. While you’ll find classic books on the list, most of the challenged books focus on LGBTQ issues, discuss racism in America or document the Black experience or the experiences of other BIPOC individuals.
There has been significant pushback from individuals, publications and groups like the ALA and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), all with the view that book banning is a violation of our First Amendment rights. And many argue that whether they’re classic books or more modern works, banned books are actually some of the best books for people to read, because they offer new perspectives and insights from people with life experiences different from our own.
What is the process of getting a book banned?
The term book banning isn’t the most accurate way to describe what happens when parents, community members, organizations or school board members decide that certain groups shouldn’t be permitted to access a book.
“What people do is bring a challenge against a book,” Knox explains. “Generally, this is done by filling out a ‘request for reconsideration’ form with their public institution—usually a public library or public school. And that starts the process of having the book reconsidered. Books are really only banned if they are removed.”
For this reason, instead of using “book banning” as an imprecise catchall term, Knox prefers to speak about “people engaging in censorship practices,” via what she refers to as the four Rs:
- Redaction: “When you put a line through something because you don’t like that word, or you cover up an image if you don’t like that particular image,” she explains.
- Relocation: “When you remove something from its intended audience [and aim it at] a different audience,” she says. “This is when people say, ‘This book isn’t appropriate for 7-year-olds; it needs to be in the [young-adult] section.'”
- Restriction: “When you require permission to read something,” she says.
- Removal: “What most people think about when they hear ‘book banning’—it’s saying, ‘This book needs to be removed from the collection, from the curriculum, from my sight,'” she says.
As far as who has the authority to ban books, it depends on the institution where a book is located.
“If you’re thinking about a school, it is generally the school board who will give the final approval on whether or not it will be included in the school curriculum, the school library or on a suggested reading list,” says Knox. “Those are all very different, so most school districts have a committee that will give a recommendation to the board, and then the board will decide. Generally, public libraries work the same way.”
Why do people ban books?
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In many cases, concerns about a book stem from what some people perceive to be explicit material, offensive language or so-called “age-inappropriateness,” says attorney Brent C.J. Britton.
He offers an example of a classic book that’s been taught in schools for decades: “Often, a well-meaning parent happens to glance at their student’s copy of Catcher in the Rye, sees the F-word and initiates a Chicken-Little-sky-is-falling campaign to rid the school of smut, which then metastasizes into a full-blown witch hunt,” he explains. “So they bring it to the school board, and the board caves under community pressure.”
The stories we tell
But what causes people to read a book and believe it’s so inappropriate that they put time and effort into keeping other people—especially younger members of their community—from reading it? It largely comes down to two factors: whose story it is, and how it is being told.
“It’s not a coincidence that books about marginalized people are being challenged right now,” Knox says. “Our country is becoming a majority-minority country. We are rapidly changing as a society. These are books that center people that have not been centered previously. They describe life circumstances that are quite different from what you might expect.”
Not only do these books feature stories that have long been overlooked or willfully ignored by mainstream publishers and wider popular culture (think: LGBTQ+ books and those by authors of color), but they are also written in a way that paints a vivid picture of situations and circumstances that may be unfamiliar to white, middle-class, heterosexual audiences. These frank descriptions of what life is like for other people may cause readers to see groups of people—and themselves—in a new light.
“They expose parts of our society [and] our history that are difficult to discuss,” Knox explains. “This is called ‘difficult knowledge.'” Some parents also worry that this difficult knowledge will lead to their children having different values than their own, she adds, especially when it comes to lifestyles or political ideas they believe are wrong or immoral.
Is book banning illegal?
This question is much harder to answer than one might think. Because so much is determined at the local level on a case-by-case basis, it’s impossible to classify book banning as either legal or illegal. In fact, multiple legal experts Reader’s Digest reached out to were either unwilling or unable to answer this question.
Here’s what we do know: Removing materials from public libraries solely based on their content could be considered censorship and a violation of the First Amendment. Public school libraries are not permitted to remove materials because of political content, but according to a 1982 Supreme Court decision, schools are allowed to remove materials that are “pervasively vulgar.”
That said, even in situations when book banning can be considered illegal, that doesn’t stop concerned parents and educators from challenging books … or lawmakers from enacting policies to ban them.
So, when is book banning considered legal? When the federal government deems a book or other materials to be legally obscene—which “mostly means that it is utterly devoid of any literary, artistic, political or scientific value, and is patently sexual,” says Britton. This is largely because of the protections provided by the First Amendment, which have been bolstered by decades of court rulings on all levels.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has held repeatedly that students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate and that the First Amendment limits the power of public junior high and high school officials to remove books from school libraries because of their content,” Britton explains.
Is banning books against the First Amendment?
It is a violation of the First Amendment for the government to “ban books merely because it dislikes the ideas contained in those books, nor may it do so for partisan, political or viewpoint-based reasons,” says Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology project, adding that “the First Amendment protects the right to receive and explore ideas on the federal, state and local levels.”
Libraries—whether public or affiliated with a school—are places where people can exercise their First Amendment rights by exploring a wide range of viewpoints, book genres and experiences, Eidelman explains. And our First Amendment protections apply whether the government bans books entirely or limits access to them in other ways, such as putting them in a separate section of the library or behind the librarian’s desk.
“When the government tries to use its power to indicate that certain ideas are unacceptable or not worthy of discussion or consideration, that message is not lost on students or library patrons,” she notes.
According to Eidelman, nine states, including New Hampshire and Texas, enacted classroom censorship bills in 2021, and state officials and local school boards across the country continue to wage campaigns to remove books from schools that are by and about communities of color, LGBTQ individuals and other marginalized groups. But she says that the ACLU is actively pursuing litigation to block these laws and policies.
What are the most commonly banned books in America?
The most commonly banned books in America include children’s books, teen books and titles written for adults that address topics like race, mental health, LGBTQ issues and politics, and/or include offensive language, gun violence or sexist content.
According to the latest data from PEN America, the top 10 most banned books in the country right now are:
- Flamer by Mike Curato
- Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe
- Tricks by Ellen Hopkins
- The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood
- Crank by Ellen Hopkins
- A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas
- Sold by Patricia McCormick
- Push by Sapphire
- This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson
- Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
The classics you read in high school aren’t exempt from challenges either. Celebrated authors like Maya Angelou, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Walker and Judy Blume have all faced bans. Regarded by many as some of the best books ever written, these titles are among the classics that have come under fire in recent years:
- 1984 by George Orwell
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Forever… by Judy Blume
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- Ulysses by James Joyce
What is the effect of banning books?
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Banning books has both short- and long-term effects. And the impact is widespread: Students, parents, teachers, librarians, authors and the entire community are impacted when a book is removed from shelves.
How book bans are affecting students
As soon as a challenged book is banned, it will promptly be removed from places like school libraries, bookstore shelves, reading lists and curricula—making it more difficult for a specific audience (usually students) to access. The message behind a specific book’s banning can also have a lasting impact on students.
“When the government bans a book, it sends a clear message that certain ideas are not acceptable in society,” Eidelman explains. “That is precisely what the First Amendment forbids. And yet the message many school boards are choosing to send today is that they won’t accept stories that they don’t like—including those by and about Black, queer and immigrant communities.”
Some students may carry that unfortunate lesson with them moving forward.
How book bans are affecting schools and libraries
As the issue of book banning has heated up and become increasingly political, schools are now seeing the effects.
In an October 2023 working paper, Kirsten Slungaard Mumma, an assistant professor of economics and education at Teachers College of Columbia University, investigated the link between local politics and the books a school’s library offers. After reviewing 6,631 public school library collections, she discovered that while most libraries had some controversial content, those in conservative areas have fewer books about LGBTQ+ topics, race and racism, and abortion.
Changes to a school’s library catalog that are prompted by book challenges and bans can have very real consequences. “Over the longer term, book challenges could have ‘chilling effects’ on library collections, pushing librarians to avoid books with content that could provoke parents or political groups,” Slungaard Mumma writes in the paper.
And the issue isn’t contained to school libraries alone.
What began as a push to get “objectionable” books out of schools and out of the hands of impressionable children has now widened in scope to the entire community. In essence, those who support book banning don’t want anyone to be able to read the book. That’s why we’re seeing more and more librarians fight back against bans, both in their libraries and in America.
How book bans are affecting society as a whole
Book banning can also have much wider implications, beyond students and schools. “A society in which book banning is acceptable is no longer a free society,” Eidelman says. “It is instead one in which the government tells the people what books to read—and therefore what ideas to encounter and, ultimately, what to think. It weakens education and prevents people from learning to think for themselves.”
We’re already seeing the effects of this most recent wave of book challenges and bans. Take North Dakota, for example. It’s one of the nine states that have passed classroom censorship laws, and it’s currently taking aim at Critical Race Theory. But it doesn’t stop at prohibiting educators from endorsing or promoting Critical Race Theory—it prohibits them from even discussing it in the classroom, so students aren’t given the opportunity to learn that a different approach to understanding race issues in America even exists. This is how bans can snowball and extend far beyond their initial scope.
You’ve probably heard the oft-repeated maxim that people who don’t learn about the past are doomed to repeat it—and it’s as true now as it was when philosopher George Santayana wrote it in 1905. The effects of book bans and classroom censorship laws may be pushing American society closer and closer toward that becoming our reality.
About the experts
- Emily Knox, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s School of Information Science whose focus is on intellectual freedom and censorship. She’s also the author of Book Banning in 21st-Century America.
- Vera Eidelman is a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology project. She has litigated cases in defense of the right to write, publish and distribute books others sought to ban as “obscene.”
- Brent C.J. Britton is an attorney specializing in intellectual property at CoreX Legal. He previously handled cases involving censorship.
- Pen America: “Banned in the USA: State Laws Supercharge Book Suppression in Schools”
- Freedom Forum Institute: “Book Banning and the First Amendment”
- New York Times: “Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.”
- ALA: “About Banned and Challenged Books”
- ALA: “The American Library Association opposes widespread efforts to censor books in U.S. schools and libraries”
- First Amendment Museum: “Banned Books Week: Maine Authors”
- The First Amendment Encyclopedia: “Comstock Act of 1873”
- Institute for Humane Education: “Windows and Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors: Ensuring Students See Themselves and Others in Literature”
- Kirsten Slungaard Mumma: “Politics and Children’s Books: Evidence from School Library Collections”