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Banning Books and the Law

The First Amendment guarantees free speech, which extends to the school curriculum. It gives anyone living in the U.S., including students, the freedom to express any opinion they like. However, this right faces challenges regarding the content in school libraries. School board members and school officials are influenced by state law, the local board of education, and local sentiments. They often grapple with deciding which books are suitable for students who are also minors.

Local boards of education are responsible for 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.

Nonprofit organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Library Association (ALA) advocate for broad intellectual freedom. They often oppose the removal of books that include diverse viewpoints and narratives. For example, when texts with LGBTQ content, themes about people of color, or examinations of critical race theory are challenged, these organizations fight for these books to stay on library shelves.

The Role of School Administrators and Librarians

School administrators and school librarians play a pivotal role in this debate. They are often at the forefront of advocating to ensure that students have access to a wide range of literature and must navigate the complex scenarios where public opinion, represented by parents and local school boards, demands the removal of certain books.

The list of challenged books often includes titles like Harry Potter, Catcher in the Rye, and Slaughterhouse Five. These books have been deemed controversial by some groups.

The Legal Standard for Banning Books

The legal standard for banning books in the United States, particularly in public schools, is primarily governed by the First Amendment. This law guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of expression. According to the Supreme Court, for a book to be banned, it must meet certain criteria. These criteria were developed in cases like Board of Education v. Pico (1982). 

In this landmark decision, the court ruled that school boards cannot remove books from school library shelves for no better reason than that they dislike the ideas in the books. The removal must be based on a valid educational reason. It must not be an attempt to suppress a particular viewpoint or ideology.

Moreover, the standard for determining whether a book is inappropriate involves evaluating whether the content is obscene. Obscenity is defined in the Miller v. California (1973) case. Under the Miller test, material is considered obscene if:
it lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value; if an average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find the work appeals to the prurient interest; and if it depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive way.

In practice, this means that for a book to be banned on legal grounds, there must be a solid, objective reason for banning it. This reason must be grounded in educational suitability or obscenity standards. Subjective disagreements over ideology or content do not provide legal justification for the banning of books. This standard is intended to protect the First Amendment rights of students. It also intended to ensure a broad and diverse curriculum that exposes students to various ideas and viewpoints.

Legally Valid Reasons To Ban Books

In addition to educational appropriateness and obscenity, valid legal reasons to ban books from public school libraries can include content that is considered defamatory, engenders hatred, or incites violence. This aligns with the broader principles of maintaining a safe and respectful learning environment. For instance, a school book that contains hate speech or promotes violence against specific groups can be deemed inappropriate for school settings.

Frequently Banned Books

Among the myriad of books that face challenges and bans in school libraries, certain titles often top the list due to their controversial subject matter or themes. Here are some of the most banned books that have sparked debates across various educational and social settings:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  • The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
  • Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • 1984, by George Orwell
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  • Harry Potter, a series by J.K. Rowling
  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
  • The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
  • The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

These books, while facing challenges and bans, are also recognized for their literary significance. They have the ability to provoke thought and discussion on various important and often difficult subjects.

Getting Legal Help With Banned Books

If you're involved in a book-banning dispute, it's crucial to understand your legal rights. Whether you're a parent, student, librarian, or school administrator, seeking legal advice is important. A lawyer can help you navigate the complex interplay of state laws, school policies, and First Amendment rights. Organizations like the ACLU, ALA, and local legal aid societies can provide guidance and support, or you can talk to a private attorney about your case today.

If you feel like unreasonable pressure on your school district is denying high school students the right to read important texts, speak with an education law attorney about fighting back. Restricting student access to any number of books is a violation of their free speech rights and a slight to their public education.

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