Book Censorship

Censorship is when a person or group successfully imposes their values upon others by stifling words, images or ideas and preventing them from reaching the public marketplace of ideas. From as early as 399 B.C., when Socrates was sentenced to drink poison for corrupting his students, to the school board debates over textbooks that occur in contemporary America, attempts to stifle ideas through censorship are a feature of societies, both primitive and advanced.

Book censorship is no stranger to the U.S., a place where free speech is considered to be very strong. Books are challenged or censored in cities and towns all over the country for a multitude of reasons. The “hot button” issues that have caused the most controversy are sexually explicit material, offensive language, unsuitable material for children, homosexuality, objectionable religious views, nudity, racism and sexual education, among others. (American Library Association)

A challenge against a book is an attempt to remove or restrict materials at the request of a person or group, while a banning is the actual removal of the book. Challenges are not just an individual expressing a point of view and complaining about the content of a book but rather, they are an effort to remove that book from the school’s curriculum or library.

In 1949, two classics, “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens and “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare, were targeted in New York because “they tend to engender hatred of the Jew as a person and as a race.” (Rosenberg v. Board of Education of City of New York) The Supreme Court for Kings County rejected the challenge, finding there was no considerable reason to suppress the books.

Powerful institutions may support censorship -- the Catholic Church compiled lists of banned books since 1559, and only stopped the practice in 1966. At the same time, organized resistance to censorship can be successful, even from a small group of people. In Chelsea, Mass., for example, the Right to Read Defense Committee took on the school committee after it banned a book of poetry, “Male and Female under 18: Frank Comments from Young People About Their Sex Roles Today,” from the high school library. They claimed one poem, “The City to a Young Girl” by Jody Caravaglia, was "offensive" and "damaging." In the poem, Caravaglia refers to the city as “One million horny lip-smacking men screaming for my body.” (Caravaglia) In 1978, federal court judge Joseph L. Tauro overturned the school committee’s decision, stating, “The most effective antidote to the poison of mindless orthodoxy is ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies. There is no danger from such exposure. The danger is mind control.” (Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea)

Sexual material

Books involving sexual relations, especially homosexual relationships, are often targeted. A 1995 federal court case involved the Olathe, Kansas, school board, which voted to remove the book “Annie on My Mind” from school libraries. The novel illustrates a lesbian relationship between two teenagers. The court found the school board violated the students' rights under the First Amendment and the equivalent provisions of the state constitution. Although the school board originally said they banned the book because of its “educational unsuitability,” the court ruled that they actually objected to the book’s premise and principles and overturned the book’s removal. (Case v. Unified School District No. 233)

Another example of censorship based on homosexuality was the 2000 case of Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, Texas. Members of a church in Wichita Falls fought to remove two books, “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Daddy's Roommate,” because they objected to the books' descriptions of homosexuality. The city council voted to restrict access to the books if 300 people signed a petition asking for the restriction. Another group of citizens filed suit after the books were taken out of the children's section and put on a locked shelf in the adult area of the library. The federal district court permanently stopped the city from enforcing the resolution permitting the removal of the two books because the resolution was not narrowly tailored, had no review process and was unreasonably content-based. (Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, Texas)

A contemporary favorite was challenged in Arkansas because it depicted witchcraft. In Counts v. Cedarville School District, the school board voted to restrict students' access to the Harry Potter series because they said the books encouraged disobedience and disrespect for authority, and also because the books included witchcraft and the occult. Students had to get 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 federal district court said the restrictions violated students' First Amendment right to read and receive information and overturned the school board's decision. The Harry Potter books were ordered back into circulation. The court stressed that the school board was still bound by the Bill of Rights and could not abridge students' right to read a book because they disagreed with the ideas contained in the book. (Counts v. Cedarville School District)

School libraries are the institutions that are most frequently petitioned with book challenges, followed by schools themselves, and then public libraries. It is not surprising that parents are the people who challenge the most books because they feel they have to protect their children from contentious ideas. In fact, from 1990 to 2008, 56 percent of those who challenged a book were parents. Library or school patrons, school administrators, board members, teachers and other outside organizations are also groups who commonly initiate a challenge of a book. (American Library Association)

Textbook censorship

Literature is not the only type of book that is commonly banned. Textbooks are challenged, banned or revised for the same reasons literature is, but there are additional forces that influence their censorship. Textbook publishers’ goals are to keep their sales high. Often, the publisher will ask a writer to edit or remove material from an article because a particular group may object to it. These groups are usually from the far right of the political spectrum or religious groups, and may pressure school boards to reject texts that they disapprove of. Because publishers aim to please the school boards, textbooks depicting male and female genitalia or including the theory of evolution are often challenged and revised.

History textbooks have been disputed, as well. In 1983, any mention of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was deleted from a textbook in Texas because the school board and community members viewed Roosevelt’s administration as socialistic and disagreed with his economic decisions. In another instance, over 300 lines of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” were removed from the text when the story was included in an anthology. Any sexually explicit words, such as “bosom” or “maidenhood” were taken out, thus significantly diluting the love story and plot of the play. (DelFattore) In the case Loewen v. Turnipseed, the Mississippi Textbook Purchasing Board refused to approve “Mississippi: Conflict and Change” for use in Mississippi public schools because they believed the textbook was controversial and too concerned with racial matters. The authors of the book filed suit and the federal court ruled that those were not justifiable grounds for rejecting the book and that the authors had been denied their constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of speech and the press. (Loewen v. Turnipseed)

From 1990 to 2008, the year with the most challenges reported was 1995 with 762 challenges, according to the American Library Association. (American Library Association) The smallest number of book challenges came just years earlier in 1990, with only 157. In 2008, there were 520 challenges reported. According to Time magazine, the list of the most banned books of all time include “Candide,” by Voltaire; “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain; “Brave New World,” by Aldous Huxley; “1984,” by George Orwell; “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger; “Lolita,” by Vladmir Nabokov; “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou; “The Anarchists Handbook,” by William Powell; “The Satanic Verses,” by Salman Rushdie; and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. (“Banned Books”)

-- Autumn Gould, Journalism ‘10

For a Czech translation of this page, see Barbora Lebedová's site at


American Library Association, “About Banned & Challenged Books,”

“Banned Books,” TIME Magazine,,29569,1842832,00.html

Case v. Unified School District No. 233, 908 F. Supp. 864 (D. Kan. 1995)

Counts v. Cedarville School District, 295 F.Supp.2d 996 (W.D. Ark. 2003)

DelFattore, Joan. “What Johnny Shouldn’t Read: Textbook Censorship in America” (Yale University Press, 1994).

Caravaglia, Jody. “The City to a Young Girl,” Project 17: Poetry and Law,

Heins, Marjorie. “Sex, Sin and Blasphemy: A Guide to America’s Censorship Wars” (New Press, 1993).

Loewen v. Turnipseed, 488 F. Supp. 1138 (N.D. Miss. 1980)

Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea, 454 F. Supp. 703 (D. Mass. 1978)

Rosenberg v. Board of Education of City of New York, 92 N.Y.S.2d 344 (Sup. Ct. Kings County 1949)

Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, Texas, 121 F. Supp. 2d 530 (N.D. Texas, 2000)