With all that’s happening in the news today, it’s difficult to keep track of every important issue. But one scourge that’s reared its head again over the past year is book bans, in which schools and communities fight to remove certain books from reading lists and curriculums.
Banned books comprise diverse works. Some were recently written, while others date back decades. Authors range from upstarts and one-hit wonders to lauded Pulitzer Prize winners. The supposedly controversial content includes anything from sex, drug use, profanity, and violence to racial identity and harrowing portrayals of historical events. Often these topics are not glorified, but rather shown in realistic detail as a means to illuminate points and faithfully represent events.
Attempts to ban books can occur with good intentions, like the desire to protect children from “inappropriate” ideas. However, what’s inappropriate to one person isn’t to another. At their worst, book bans can be used to censor ideas, squash opposing viewpoints, and push specific ideologies in schools and elsewhere. And they disproportionately impact topics covering diverse perspectives.
Banned books vs. challenged books
Book challenges describe an attempt to ban or remove a particular work from libraries or schools for any reason, but typically to restrict access to works that one deems offensive. A ban takes this action to its conclusion by officially removing the material. According to the American Library Association, there were more than 330 book challenges in the United States in the fall of 2021. Book challenges in 2021 outpaced those in 2020 by double, and at the time of data collection, they were on pace to eclipse 2019 as well.
Local vs. federal bans
The First Amendment prevents the U.S. government from banning books outright. Instead, books are challenged by individuals or groups and taken before local courts and boards of education. Once challenged, the particular institution in question — usually a library, school or book store — can remove the book or deny the challenge.
In Board of Education v. Pico (1982), Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote: “Petitioners rightly possess significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries. But that discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner.” Basically, this means that books can’t be banned simply because someone disagrees with the content within. However, that still leaves room for interpretation, as one can still challenge the book’s language and themes, arguing that they’re offensive or otherwise inappropriate for readers.
In recent months, local school boards across the country, including in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, have voted to ban certain books. In some cases, protests by students and teachers successfully overturned the bans, while others remain in place.
Frequently banned books
It’s easy to assume that banned books were banned for good reason, but the reality is that someone will always find any content challenging or offensive. Many recently banned books deal with subjects including racism and sexual identity, but lauded literary classics have also been banned over the decades under a variety of justifications.
To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, and 1984 are mainstays on top-100 lists and school reading lists, but they have something else in common: Each has been challenged or banned by local communities. Even a seemingly harmless pop favorite like Harry Potter has faced its own criticisms and countless challenges since its debut. Critics claim that it’s anti-religious and promotes witchcraft. Others dislike its portrayal of the non-magical muggles. A Catholic school in Nashville even claimed that its spells are real, and reading them can release evil spirits.
The bottom line
Books, just like music, movies, and TV, find their audiences. The fact that something exists or is popular doesn’t mean everyone has to like it. Individuals will always have the right to avoid reading or watching material they find offensive, and parents will always have the right to usher their kids in a direction they find more suitable. The main issue with outright book bans is that “protecting” one person from a particular work denies access to another. Too often, it denies access to important work and marginalized voices.