Against the Censorship of Books in U.S Schools and Libraries

April 13, 2013
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In the preface to his book, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.” (Shaw, 1893, p. 13) Books, especially, have been censored consistently throughout history because they displayed dissenting opinions, attitudes or content that some of the population found objectionable or were considered a danger to the perpetuation of the ‘status quo.’ As a nation that has built itself upon new ideas and a freedom to voice objections, we should embrace the right and ability to give and receive new ideas, even if they contradict our current conceptions. Offering new ideas and ways to think about existing institutions is one of the most effective means of progress. The censorship of books is unconstitutional, has been proven disastrous from historical instances and, overall, is an inhibition of progress in a society. For these reasons the banning and censorship of books should not be allowed in publically funded schools and libraries in the United States.
The American Library Association (ALA) defines book censorship as ‘a change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives.’ (ALA) The removal of books from a public library almost always begins with the challenge of the book based on the objections of one person or group. If their challenge is successful, the book is removed from the curriculum or library and access is restricted to everyone. The ALA describes this as “a threat to freedom of speech and choice”. An important function of the ALA, and libraries across the nation, is to promote intellectual freedom. Intellectual freedom is the “right for people to read, seek out and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment”. (ALA) Despite the ALA’s efforts to counteract challenges and censorship of books, book censorship is still a huge problem. Noah Michelson of The Huffington Post reported that in the last thirty years 11,300 books have been challenged (2012). These challenges have led to many bans in libraries across the country.
Book censorship is not a modern problem; throughout history there are examples of political and social authorities that have limited exposure to reading materials. The censorship is most prevalent in countries that have political regimes whose success is based on a society that is repressed from dissident ideas. The suppression of exposure to new ideas was imperative to the success of the establishment. But the success of the establishment is often not synonymous with the progress of society. During Hitler’s Third Reich, over 1,500 authors were banned and their books burned. The authors were humanists, Jews and Communist and the ideas their books expressed were objectionable to Hitler’s regime. 20,000 volumes of offensive books were burned in the 1930’s “In order to cleanse the minds of people and society.” (Newth, 2010) The horrific events of the Holocaust that would follow were in part an effect of the suppression of books and other forms of the media. Book censorship was also part of the foundation of the maintenance of other social and political establishments like Apartheid in South Africa and the USSR. These historical scenarios exemplify Shaw’s statement. The citizens of these nations were not exposed to or allowed to read ideas that defied the current institutions of their culture, thus the overall progress of the nation was impaired.
The addition that ensured US citizens the right to speech was added to the constitution to prevent totalitarian or oppressive government situation like these to arise. In the United States, we have provisions to protect our freedoms, including the freedom of speech. This being said, the censorship of books goes completely against our rights laid out in the First Amendment. Our founding fathers included the rights of expression, including the right to publish and distribute books. Allowing people to spread their ideas and opinions is a tool of our democracy and free nation to avoid situations where the people are suppressed by the government. Former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said in 1953 “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”
The removal of books from publically funded libraries is also an infraction of a Supreme Court decision, Pico vs. the Board of Education, in 1982. Pico, a high school student claimed that his First Amendment rights had been infringed by the removal of reading materials from his school’s library. The Supreme Court ruled that if US citizens have the right to express their views, then others had the right to receive those views. This court decision was a step in the right direction; it required that a challenged book go through rigorous inspection before it is removed from school library shelves. It was also established that the removal of a book from a shelf by one person or interest group is a violation of the First Amendment right of the students. (Hudson, 2002)

Removing books from schools is not only an infringement of the First Amendment right of students, but can also inhibit the learning process of students. Books that are removed from curriculum and school libraries are usually censored because a parent does not want their children to read the material written in the book because it may cause them to adopt unpopular, unorthodox or objectionable behaviors and concepts. But Dr. David Gershaw, a psychologist, points out that the censorship of these books could do just the opposite can even cause schools to fail in one of their primary goals: teaching kids to make their own decisions based on given evidence. Take, for example, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. This book, widely used in middle and high school curriculum, has recently been challenged frequently for its inclusion of racist behavior and racial slurs. Children and students today are usually taught that racial slurs are inappropriate and hurtful and generally unacceptable in our society. By reading books like To Kill a Mockingbird children are exposed to a scenario that isn’t present in our modern world and discover things that they wouldn’t normally be aware of, and it allows them to examine these things more closely than they could without the books. By reading To Kill a Mockingbird, students not only learn that racist behaviors are unacceptable, but they receive a narrative of how it was harmful to society and how it could hurt the people involved. This context allows them to make connections based on evidence and set a more firm foundation for their beliefs. The dissenting opinions or situations portrayed in books aid children in developing one of the most important skills for adulthood: critical thinking. These skills will help them to react appropriately in situation later in life. “If these topics have been avoided in childhood, young people will not know how to respond to them. . . Rather than avoiding an aversive topic, it is more effective to train children to make their own decisions.” (Gershaw, 2012) In novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, it is true that students are exposed to objectionable behavior, but it also offers to them ways to combat these behaviors when they experience them in real life.

According to the ALA, about 7,500 of the 11,185 instances of challenging books between 1990 and 2010 were in schools, but censorship in publically funded libraries is also a major problem in our communities. Most of the 2,500+ books that were challenged or removed from public libraries in the last 20 years were challenged because they were inappropriate for some reader or did not hold up to the standards of the community. Public libraries are supported by and are meant to serve the whole community. That being said, it isn’t right for one person or group to limit the access of a book for a whole community. The first article in the Library Bill of Rights, last amended in 1996, exemplifies the goal of public libraries. “As our world becomes more globalized, communities become diverse. It is impossible to label a book in accordance to the standards of every community member. “With our mobile society, families are likely to move into communities with standards different from their own.” (Gershaw, 2012) Is it right for one person to be able to make decisions about what the public has access to, based only on their thoughts and beliefs? Is it possible for one person to successfully judge a book’s worth in the eyes of society? (Ward, 1990)
Instead of suppressing the spread of new ideas, our communities should be embracing one of the most trusted methods of expressing proposals and inspiration. The written word. Books are often a protector of free society, one where citizens are able to stay informed and continue to develop ideas. To ensure this culture in the US, the Constitution laid out rights protecting both our freedom to write our opinions and, in turn, receive the opinions of others. Such powerful tools should be available for all people. Whether they be the next generation, learning to draw their own ideas or community members who put their trust in their local libraries to provide for them all types of literature, everyone should have the right to choose what they read. The right to read is not just a personal freedom, it is one of the tools that work towards the betterment of society. Intellectual freedom allows people to share ideas and create their own. And by challenging current conceptions and existing institutions, we ultimately work towards the betterment of society.

Works cited
American Library association. (2012). About banned & challenged books. American Library
Association.Retrieved from

Gershaw, David A. Ph.D. (2012). Psychology: Ban the book! Jiskha. Retrieved from

Hudson Jr., David L. (2001, April 1). Book Censorship. Vanderbilt University The First
Amendment Center. Retrieved from

Mullally, Claire. (2002, September 13). Banned books. Vanderbilt’s University the First
Amendment center. Retrieved from

Newth, Mette. (2010) The Long History of Censorship. Beacon for Freedom of Expression.
Retrieved from

Ward, David V. (1990). Philisophical issues in censorship and intellectual freedom.
Retrieved from


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