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Banning Books and the Law

The First Amendment gives anyone living in the U.S., including students, the freedom to express any opinion they like. Students in public high schools can access many different opinions, stories, and ideas through their high school libraries. Local boards of education are responsible for choosing books that go in the library, as well as removing books that might not be appropriate for the students. The Supreme Court has not ruled on how Boards of Education choose books to place in a library. However, once a book is in a library, school boards may remove it only under certain circumstances.

The Legal Standard for Banning Books

The Supreme Court set the standard for banning books in 1982 (Island Trees School District v. Pico). In that case, the school board attempted to ban a number of books because they were "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy," including titles such as Slaughterhouse Five, The Naked Ape, Down These Mean Streets, Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, and Go Ask Alice.

The Justices were unable to come to a majority agreement and instead issued what is known as a "plurality" opinion, in which some combination of justices signed on to three different opinions in order to render an outcome. The standard from Pico which governs book banning decisions is that school officials may not remove books from the school library simply because they dislike the ideas in the book. However, school officials may remove a book from a school library if it is inappropriate for the children of the school. For example, if Lolita was in an elementary school library, the school board could probably remove it because of its highly sexual and violent content.

The Most Challenged Books

The following is a list of the most challenged books in high school libraries, and their reasons:

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Many people object to its treatment of African Americans, including the use of a racial slur
  • The Catcher in the Rye: Contains profanity and prostitution
  • To Kill a Mockingbird: Profanity and racial slurs
  • Bridge to Terabithia: Depicts children who do not respect adults, also does not distinguish between fantasy and reality
  • The Lord of the Flies: Profanity, sexuality, racial slurs, and excessive violence
  • Of Mice and Men: Profanity, racial slurs, and "taking the Lord's name in vain"
  • The Color Purple: Explicit sexuality, profanity, violence, and use of drugs
  • The Harry Potter Series: Some people fear it will draw children to the occult, and others object to the violence it portrays
  • Slaughterhouse Five: Profanity, violence, and explicit sexuality
  • The Bluest Eye: Profanity, sexual references, and unsuitability for students

For more information related to banning books and free speech rights, see FindLaw's sections on Student Speech and on the Types of Schools children may attend.


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