September 21–27 is Banned Books Week, an annual event that highlights the freedom to read and the harms of censorship.
The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom has been collecting data on banned books since 1990. Each year, the Office compiles a list of the top 10 most frequently challenged books. From 2000–09, 5,099 challenges were reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom. It is estimated that for each challenge reported, four or five challenges go unreported.
Book banning falls under the First Amendment, as restricting access to books can lead to the censorship of ideas. Most incidents of book banning occur at a local level in public schools and libraries. Books are challenged because they contain profanity or violence, sex or sex education, homosexuality, witchcraft and the occult, portrayals of rebellious children, or racist or sexist language.
It is interesting to note that many of the same books are continuously challenged year after year. Classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye have been targets of numerous ban attempts, as well as contemporary young adult series such as The Hunger Games and Harry Potter books. Here are five notable cases involving banned books.
Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982)
In 1975, members of the school board from the Island Trees School District ordered that certain books be removed from high school and junior high school libraries on the grounds that the books were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” Some of the books to be removed were Slaughterhouse Five, Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, Go Ask Alice, and Down These Mean Streets. A high school student named Steven Pico led a group of students who sued the board, claiming a denial of their First Amendment rights. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where a closely divided Court ruled 5 to 4 in favor of the students. Writing for the plurality, Justice Brennan held that the First Amendment includes the right to read library books of a student’s choosing and that while school officials have significant authority to control the content of speech in schools, that power is not absolute. Additionally, local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.
Case v. Unified School District No. 233, 908 F.Supp. 864 (D. Kan. 1995)
The Olathe, Kansas School Board voted to remove the book Annie on My Mind from junior and senior high school libraries because the novel illustrates a lesbian relationship between two teenagers. Although the school board testified they had removed the book because of “educational unsuitability,” the federal court found that the school board violated the students’ First Amendment rights. The court found that the school board actually objected to the book’s premise and ideology and overturned the book’s removal.
Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District, 541 F.2d 577 (6th Cir. 1976)
In 1972, the Strongsville City School District refused to approve faculty recommendations to use Catch-22 and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater as textbooks. Further, they ordered that Catch-22, along with Cat’s Cradle, be removed from the school library. The court held that the school board did not have the right to remove books from the library. The court reasoned that the “library is a storehouse of knowledge” and students have a First Amendment right to receive information and the librarian has a right to disseminate it.
Counts v. Cedarville School District, 295 F.Supp.2d 996 (W.D. Ark. 2003)
The school board of Arkansas’s Cedarville School District voted to restrict students’ access to the Harry Potter series citing that the books include witchcraft and the occult and also encourage disobedience and disrespect for authority. As a result, students had to obtain a signed permission slip from their parents or guardians before they were allowed to take out any of the Harry Potter books from school libraries. The district court stated that the restrictions violated students’ First Amendment rights to read and receive information and overturned the school board’s decision. The court noted that the school board could not abridge students’ right to read a book because they disagreed with the ideas contained in the book.
Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education, 827 F.2d 1058 (6th Cir. 1987)
Parents and students, upset about religious themes being taught in the required reading of classes, brought this action challenging the textbooks being used in class. Specifically, the mention of telekinetic and magical powers offended the religious beliefs of the parents and the parents felt they had a right to choose what their children could or could not view and learn at school. The court held that the school board was not in violation for the required reading and that it was up to the children and parents to interpret the books for themselves. The court held that it was merely required reading and not required worship and that the reading was purely the views of another.
Material for this article came from the American Library Association Banned and Challenged Books website and the American Library Association Notable First Amendment Court Cases website.