By David L. Hudson Jr., First Amendment Scholar, and Mahad Ghani, First Amendment Center Fellow
Last updated: September 18, 2017
The history of books being banned in America is thought to stem back to 1852 when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published. Stowe’s novel was banned in the south preceding the Civil War for holding pro-abolitionist views and arousing debates on slavery. Books that aroused debates or have contained controversial content have often drawn the ire of those that would seek to ban them in schools. But discussing controversial ideas debating are key to education. (Also see Banned books section.)
Schools are often pushed to censor books because parents, members of the community, and administrators deem it best to ban books that may be deemed profane, sexually explicit, violent, or may offend religious notions. While these schools are well meaning, in 1982 the Supreme Court determined in Board of Education v. Pico that “the First Amendment rights of students may be directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library.”
The Supreme Court applied language from Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, and stated, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Though the local school boards had the right to determine what books would be taught as a part of their curriculum, that right does not supersede the students to have access to ideas that may be deemed controversial. A school need not include a book in its curriculum, but the Court stated that they could not remove books from the library because they disagreed with the ideas presented.
The Court’s determination in Pico limited a school’s ability to remove books from the library, but school’s still retained the right remove books deemed “pervasively vulgar or “educationally unsuitable.” Schools additionally still retained the right to choose not to acquire certain books.
The Court set a high bar that a school needs to meet before removing books, but controversies of school censorship continue. Books that are affected range from classics like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, to modern novels like E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey and Dave Pilkey’s The Adventures of Captain Underpants.
The range of books that have been targeted for censorship demonstrates that even thought the Court has weighed in, this is an issue that is far from settled.