Banned Books Week 2017: A Brief History, the First Amendment & Notable Court Cases

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with lit matches.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books, Banned Books Week  is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. In 2016 alone, 323 books were challenged. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) compiles a list of the top ten most frequently challenged books in order to inform the public about censorship in libraries and schools. Unfortunately books are still banned. On average, OIF finds that 10% of challenges result in the removal of the book.

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  • Five of the 10 titles on the 2016 Top Ten list were removed from the location where the challenge took place.
  • For the first time in Top Ten history, a book was challenged solely because of its author (Bill Cosby’s Little Bill series).
  • Challenges continue to target LGBT material, and there is a rise in “sexually explicit” as a challenge category.

What About the Law?

Banned books fall under the First Amendment which guarantees everyone the freedom to read. Restricting access to books naturally leads to the censorship of ideas. The majority of book challenges happen at a local level in schools and libraries. Reasons for challenging books include: profanity or violence, sex or sex education, homosexuality, witchcraft and the occult, portrayals of rebellious children, or racist or sexist language.

Many books are challenged over and over again. Classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, and Fahrenheit 451 have been targets of numerous ban attempts. Contemporary young adult books which continuously see challenges include The Hunger Games and Harry Potter series.

The Library Bill of Rights, a foundational document of the library profession, states libraries should challenge censorship and present all points of view, for the enlightenment of all people.

Notable Court Cases Involving Banned Books

There have been many law suits over the years related to banned books. In fact authorities have censored books for as long as people have been writing them. As early as 360 B.C., Plato noted that: “Our first business will be to supervise the making of fables and legends; rejecting all which are unsatisfactory…” when describing the ideal Republic. Here are a five notable court cases involving popular banned book titles you are probably familiar with:

  1. slaughterhouse-fiveBoard of Education v. Pico– Possibly the most landmark court case of banned books in the United States, this 1975 case made filed by a high school student Steven Pico made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Justice Brennan held that the First Amendment includes the right to read library books of a student’s choosing and that while school officials have significant authority to control the content of speech in schools, that power is not absolute. From the decision: “Local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books …”— U.S. Supreme Court
  2. harry_potter_and_the_sorcerer27s_stoneLaura Mallory VS Gwinette County Board of Education-  This 2006 Georgia court case stemmed from one parent’s protests against 4 Harry Potter series novels at the school her children attended. From the decision: “Appellant, in three different complaints, challenged the inclusion of four books by J. K. Rowling within the Magill Elementary media center… In each of the complaints, Appellant alleged that the books contained evil themes, witchcraft, demonic activity, murder, and blood sacrifices… Appellant demanded the removal of the books from the media center and the classrooms.” The judge ruled against her, and Harry Potter stayed on the shelves.
  3. catch22Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District – In 1972, the Strongsville City School District refused to approve faculty recommendations to use Catch-22and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater as textbooks. Further, they ordered that Catch-22, along with Cat’s Cradle, be removed from the school library. The court held that the school board did not have the right to remove books from the library. The court reasoned that the “library is a storehouse of knowledge” and students have a First Amendment right to receive information and the librarian has a right to disseminate it.
  4. Class Action Law Suit Against Bay County School Board – b60fd0a8af15cfc3bdf9711e17146ed6In 1987, a county school board in Panama City, Florida produced a list of 64 books—including Merchant of Venice, Fahrenheit 451 and The Red Badge of Courage— that it wanted banned from high schools in the county. A class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 44 teachers, parents and students in Federal District Court in Pensacola, saying that the ban, which used a three-tier system to categorize books by content, violated their constitutional rights. The day after the suit was filed, the school board had a change of heart.
  5. Virgil v. School Board of Columbia County – The 11th U.S.Circuit Court of Appeals in 1989 upheld a Florida school 2103824-mboard’s removal of a previously approved classroom text because of its perceived vulgarity and sexual explicitness (Virgil v. School Board of Columbia County). Interestingly enough, the high school literature textbook was banned because it contained selections from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale, two authors whose works were among the thousands banned under the Comstock Law in the late 19th century.

For more court cases in history relating to banned books visit:

Keep an eye out for two more blog posts later this week with links to resources from our own library collection related to banned books and the first amendment.

 

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