The freedom of speech guaranteed in the First Amendment is essential to a functioning democracy. Yet books discussing the Holocaust, racism, sexuality, gender, and many other topics have been banned across the country. Some of these bans have even gone so far as to press criminal charges on librarians and teachers for giving out certain books in states such as Florida and Wyoming. However, the charges have been unsuccessful as there has been no basis found for criminal investigations. According to Deborah Powell Stone, director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) office for intellectual freedom, “aggressively policing books for inappropriate content and banning titles could limit students’ exposure to great literature.” Additionally, for minorities, books may be a way for them to see characters they can relate to.
Various states have banned various books. For instance, in Oklahoma, a bill was proposed in the state senate that would ban public school libraries from having books that “focus on sexual activity, sexual identity, or gender identity.” In a Wyoming county, a prosecutor’s office thought about pressing charges for stocking books such as “Sex Is A Funny Word” and “This Book Is Gay”. Books are being challenged by school board members, parents, activists, and everyone in between at a rate that hasn’t been seen in decades. According to the ALA, there have been 330 books challenges recently where books have either been banned or there was an attempt to ban them. Book bans have seen a larger politicization now than ever before in history. One particular book, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, has been targeted for removal in a minimum of 14 states. The book has been challenged as a result of it containing personal essays about what it was like for activist George M Johnson to grow up black and queer.
According to Suzanne Nossel, “some groups have weaponized book lists meant to promote more diverse material, taking those lists and then pushing for all the included titles to be banned.” Some, however, have argued that books being removed “is an issue of parental rights and choice, and… all parents should be free to direct the upbringing of their children.” Book bans are having bigger impacts as organizations and parents work to have books removed from libraries affecting everyone’s access to getting the books. Some politicians are capitalizing on their supporters’ desires for book bans, with Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia (R) rallying his supporters by telling them “book bans are an issue of parental control.” A Hillel senior who wishes to remain anonymous agrees with the book bans, saying, “Books shouldn’t be written in this country about racism, sexism, and homophobia.” However, Hillel Junior Orel Mizrahi disagrees saying “book bans are stupid and are censorship.” Additionally, Mayor McGee of Ridgeland, Mississippi recently stopped funding the Madison County Library System saying “he would not release the money until books with LGBTQ themes were removed.”
The book that has faced the most attention from being banned was Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust which was voted on unanimously to be removed from Tennessee’s school district curriculum. The book, which depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, was reportedly banned because it had eight curse words, nude imagery of a woman, and depicted the author’s mother’s suicide. Maus being banned has received harsh criticism from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Anti-Defamation League, and many other organizations. Ironically, Maus sales have increased dramatically since the book ban, at one point being the number one bestseller on Amazon’s online bookstore.
Book bans have reached Florida with a bill that would end up banning some books from public schools passing the Florida senate. More specifically Senate Bill (SB) 1300 would “require a state-certified media professional at each school to review all student books and materials to make sure they are what the state considers age-appropriate. Elementary schools would then have to post that list online.” The State Senator of Sarasota Joe Gruters (R) defended the bill saying “The purpose of the bill is to create transparency in the process. It’s not to censor anything.” However, State Senator Lori Berman (D) Boyton Beach has claimed that the bill is “the slippery slope of censorship.” The bill did advance out of committee through a party-line vote. However, Senators on both sides took issue with some parts of the bill including the part that would “cap school board member salaries at the same level as state lawmakers.” Additionally, book bans have also struck throughout Texas with 100 Texas school districts making 75 formal requests to ban books from libraries. This compared to just one formal request to ban books from libraries in Texas in 2020.
The issue of book bans has appeared before the US Supreme Court before. One example of book bans appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court was Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982). In this case, the Island Trees Union Free School District’s Board of Education ruled that some books be removed from the district middle school and high school. The school district defended their deeds saying the books they removed were “anti-American, anti-Christain, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” The question presented to the Supreme Court was the following: “Did the Board of Education’s decision to ban certain books from its junior high and high school libraries, based on their content, violate the First Amendment’s freedom of speech protections?” In a five to four decision the Court ruled that yes they did violate the first amendments rights of freedom of speech. Additionally in the final ruling, they said that the School Board couldn’t get rid of books in its library just because members of the school board disagreed with the content of the book. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court case of Island Trees School District v. Pico suggests that the book bans across the country violate the first amendment rights of freedom of speech.