This week is Banned Books Week. Every year, the American Library Association (ALA) highlights books that have been banned or challenged for one reason or another. It is a chance to reflect on the importance of freedom of expression, and the dangers of censorship. Books have been banned for racism, violence, sexual content, encouragement of “dangerous” life choices, profanity, and political beliefs. But who gets to define what those “dangerous” books are, or why they are dangerous? The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank has been banned and censored many times over the years and removed from the shelves of public and school libraries. The reasons?: for “undermining adult authority” when Anne criticizes her mother; for “pornographic” scenes when 14-year-old Anne describes her maturing anatomy; for “homosexual themes”; and for simply being “a real downer.” Even the seemingly innocuous Harry Potter series has been banned, having been accused of promoting witchcraft, Satanism, and blasphemy. Many of these banned and challenged books are now considered to be classics of literature, including The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, Of Mice and Men, 1984, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
This year, the ALA’s theme for Banned Books Week is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” In recent years, the number of challenges to certain books based on their content has risen. On the ALA’s Banned Books website, you can read more about the Top 10 Most Challenged Books in the US for 2020.
As law students, you will be interested in some of the case law that has shaped the way Americans view of the right to read and the meaning of the First Amendment. Many cases of banned and challenged books have made it to state and federal courts, even the US Supreme Court. HeinOnline has highlighted some of the important court cases regarding banned books. The most notable include:
- Evans v. Selma Union High School District of Fresno County (1924): The court decided that adding a book to a school library doesn’t imply that the school has approved of or adopted any ideology presented in the book.
- The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses (1933): This case resulted in an overturn of the federal ban on James Joyce’s book Ulysses, which had been banned in the United States since 1922. The court determined that depictions of sex could be allowed in meaningful literature.
- Roth v. The United States (1957): Samuel Roth, a writer and bookseller, was accused of mailing pornographic magazines. The conviction was upheld, but the Supreme Court refined their definition of pornographic to mean “utterly without redeeming social importance.”
- Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein (1964): Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was banned from being imported to the United States shortly after it was published in 1934. When the novel was finally published in the United States by Grove Press, Inc. in 1961, it received over 60 lawsuits. This court case overruled the determination that the novel was obscene.
- Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District (1976): The court ruled that school boards could remove a book from curriculum but could not remove books from a school library for the sole reasons of disagreeing with the content.
- Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982): In this landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that school officials couldn’t ban books from libraries based on their content.
Censorship and the right to read affect everyone. Read what some famous banned authors have to say about intellectual freedom.
“Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.”
“Yes, books are dangerous. They should be dangerous – they contain ideas.”
“I hate it that Americans are taught to fear some books and some ideas as though they were diseases.”
“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
“A word to the unwise.
Torch every book.
Char every page.
Burn every word to ash.
Ideas are incombustible.
And therein lies your real fear.”
We want you to be a part of the conversation! Tell us about your favorite banned book and your thoughts on censorship, and we can share your experiences on this blog. Write to Alex Clay Hutchings, Student Service Librarian, at firstname.lastname@example.org.