The First Amendment and Book Banning

Carolyn Edwards, PhD
12 min readFeb 10, 2022

Book banning is a violation of the First Amendment and constitutes censorship and prevention of freedom of speech, this is education suppression. Conservative groups and the far-right have waged a well-financed campaign to ban books from school libraries that are viewed as too liberal. These targeted books deal with race, sexuality, and marginalized communities. Book banning campaigns have already been successful in Texas, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming.[1] Conflated with the issue of Critical Race Theory (a scholarly legal theory that racism is systemic across our institutions), book bans have become a more aggressive and urgent political agenda.

The right has orchestrated an all-out attack on our freedom of speech and the ability for children to read anything that isn’t written by or about straight white people. There is an irony that spewing hate speech, storming the Capital, or refusing vaccines is considered protected freedom of speech but, the simple act of reading a book is viewed as a restricted right. The far right cries that people are too sensitive and easily subscribe to a cancel culture while they simultaneously challenge science or political outcomes. Canceling hate speech is viewed as a violation of the First Amendment but canceling children’s books containing sexuality, history, race, social justice, or other facts of life is viewed as an acceptable regulation. This book banning initiative is about censorship to suppress ideas and information that some adults can’t handle or don’t want to accept. They are trying to manipulate the power of the state to support their unjustified demands for censorship. Is it any surprise that these objectionable books are predominately by or about people of color, LGBTQ, or other ethnicities?

https://www.thedailybeast.com/lgbtq-books-are-being-banned-their-authors-are-fighting-back

Recently, Texas Republican State Rep. Matt Krause, a candidate for state attorney general, provided a list of 850 book titles to school superintendents to confirm if any were in their libraries and classrooms. According to The Texas Tribune, the list includes bestsellers and award winners alike, including: The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall, and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Krause is also targeting books beyond those that address race including those with the subjects of teen pregnancy, abortion, and homosexuality including LGBT Families by Leanne K. Currie-McGhee, The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to their Younger Selves edited by Sarah Moon, and Michael J. Basso’s The Underground Guide to Teenage Sexuality: An Essential Handbook for Today’s Teens and Parents. The banned book list is meant to identify potential offenders of the Texas House Bill 3979, the “critical race theory law” designed to prevent how race-related subjects are taught in public schools. “The law states teacher cannot ‘require or make part of a course’ a series of race-related concepts, including the ideas that ‘one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex’ or that someone is ‘inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive’ based on their race or sex.”[2] Unfortunately, Texas is not alone in their attempt at censorship, Florida among others, are following closely behind.

When we think of banning books, we often think of the book burnings held throughout history. Most people probably think of this as a relatively modern phenomenon but, the first documentation of book burning dates back to 213 B.C. in China. The purpose was to eliminate any thoughts or beliefs not endorsed by the government. The Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered a book burning to consolidate his empire’s power by controlling free speech and thought, “Books of poetry, philosophy and history were specifically targeted, so that the new emperor couldn’t be compared to more virtuous or successful rulers of the past. Although the exact amount of information lost is unknown,” according to historian Lois Mai Chan quoted by the Smithsonian. He estimates that the genre of history books was the greatest loss.[3]

The history of book burning throughout time reflects power, religion, and oppression. In the First century A.D., rulers outlawed and burned books that contained predictions of oracles and other customs viewed as “foreign.” Books that ran counter to Catholic teachings were destroyed. The Smithsonian points to the continual destruction of the Library of Alexandria from 48 B.C. through 640 A.D. due to conquest and suppression of thought.

When Johannes Gutenberg created the printing press in 1440, books were able to spread knowledge at a faster and wider rate that covered literature, philosophy, and science. Knowledge is viewed as power and with the destruction of books — knowledge becomes limited and controlled. The U.S. Library of Congress was destroyed during the War of 1812. In more recent history, the suppression of knowledge was evident with the burning of books in Nazi Germany or when Mao Zedong came into power in China and destroyed books with western ideas such as capitalism. There were nearly 100,000 rare books of Tamil history and literature at the Jaffna Public Library of Sri Lanka which were destroyed by Sinhalese Buddhists who felt threatened by Hinduism[4]

Who kills a man, kills a reasonable creature…but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself…― John Milton, Areopagitica (1644)

The first documented U.S. book banned occurred in 1624 in Massachusetts. Thomas Morton arrived in the country with a group of Puritans but decided a Puritan life was not for him. He was a businessman known as a playboy and partier, so he left the Puritans and started his own colony in what is known today as Quincy, Massachusetts. He had a conflict with the Puritan militia who exiled him from Plymouth. Morton sued and got a book deal for New English Canaan which was published in 1637. In retaliation of the Puritan treatment, his book portrayed an inflammatory, unflattering view of Puritan customs, it was promptly banned by the Plymouth Puritans making it most likely the first banned book in America.[5]

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin about the harshness of slavery, was the first book in the United States to experience a ban on a national scale. The book was banned by the Confederacy for its pro-abolitionist stance and the debates it raised about slavery.[6]

Morton may have written the first book banned in the U.S., but he would be followed by a long list of books into the modern era covering a wide range of material considered controversial based on a variety of perspectives. Examples of controversial children books include the following:[7]

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein was banned in 1988 by a Colorado library as being a sexist book about a little boy who takes everything from a female tree until she has nothing left to give him.

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss was banned by a California school in 1989 by those who find the book to be anti-foresting and others who see the story as portraying excessive consumerism by a greedy American with an insatiable need to have the latest and greatest items.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh was argued at a 1983 school board meeting in Xenia, Ohio to promote disrespectful behavior in children because Harriet was not a model child.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak has been challenged many times since its publication in 1963 because it was considered too dark and suggestive of Paganism.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl has been banned for numerous accusations including being too scary, dealing with death, encouraging poor behavior, and promoting communism.

Beloved by Toni Morrison has been attacked by Conservative groups requesting removal from public library shelves claiming the book is sexually explicit, violent, and sacrilegious. The novel reveals the horrors of slavery and its legacy in 19th century America, The American Library Association (ALA), who documents attempts to ban “controversial” works, states that Morrison’s novel was the 26th most frequently challenged book from 2000 to 2009 and the 45th most frequently challenged book from 1990 to 1999 in U.S. public libraries.[8]

The Harry Potter seven book series by JK Rowling has been targeted by Conservative critics claiming the books promote Paganism and include real witchcraft and spells recited in its pages. Harry Potter is the most banned book series of the 21st century with over 500 million books in print worldwide, according to the ALA.[9]

The Handmaiden’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is also on the Right-wing activists banned book list with objections to profanity and “vulgarity and sexual overtones” in the book. The 1985 novel presents a dystopian future based on Christian theocracy in the southern half of North America. The ALA reports the book was the 88th most frequently challenged book from 2000 to 2009 and the 37th most frequently challenged book from 1990 to 1999 in U.S. public libraries.[10]

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution passed by Congress September 25, 1789. Ratified December 15, 1791

The Supreme Court and lower courts have held that the right to receive information is a corollary extension of the guaranteed right to free speech. The First Amendment has been used to debate book banning over the years from the lower courts to the Supreme Court. The following is a quick review of some of these cases:

A U.S. literary magazine called The Little Review published segments of James Joyce’s Ulysses between 1918 and 1920. The secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice filed a complaint in 1920 resulting in the post office halting the mailing of The Little Review pending a court decision. The magazine editors were fined for obscenity by a New York court in 1921 for publishing a chapter that described the main character masturbating.

To publish Ulysses in America, Random House Publishers had to challenge the lower court’s obscenity decision based on the grounds of freedom of expression and that the book was not obscene. They arranged to import the book from Paris and then have it seized by U.S. government custom officials so they could challenge the lower court decision at the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This became the case of the United States v. One Book Called Ulysses in 1933. The question before the court was whether the novel had an “effect on a person with average sex instincts.” The Judge said he consulted with two friends, and they were all in agreement that the book did not have any unusual sexual impact on them. They sided with the publisher and reversed the decision.[11] The judge wrote within the decision, “while in not a few spots [the book] is coarse, blasphemous, and obscene, it does not, in our opinion, tend to promote lust. The erotic passages are submerged in the book as a whole and have little resultant effect.” This case served as a precursor to future obscenity cases heard before the courts including Roth v. United States (1957) and Miller v. California (1973).[12]

Political freedom of expression was challenged in 1965 before the Supreme Court with Lamont v. Postmaster General 381 U.S. 301 (1965). The appellant desired to send what the case described as “communist political propaganda” through the mail. A federal law existed that gave the Postmaster General the right to determine if overseas mail was promoting communism and if so, to deliver a postcard to the recipient instead of the intended item. To receive the item, the recipient had to send the postcard request to the post office. The statute exempted sealed letters, subscription mail, and all mail sent to government agencies and educational institutions from this unbridled censorship. The Supreme Court struck down the federal law holding that it violated the right to free speech under the First Amendment as the substituted post card restricted the unfettered exercise of the recipient’s rights.[13] Justice William Brennan wrote in for the majority:[14]

The protection of the Bill of Rights goes beyond the specific guarantees to protect from Congressional abridgment those equally fundamental personal rights necessary to make the express guarantees fully meaningful. I think the right to receive publications is such a fundamental right. The dissemination of ideas can accomplish nothing if otherwise willing addressees are not free to receive and consider them. It would be a barren marketplace of ideas that had only sellers and no buyers.

The right to receive information as a fundamental right was reconfirmed by the Supreme Court as protected under the First Amendment in Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982). In 1975, a community group called Parents of New York United complained to a New York school board that the library contained books that were too “permissive” due to a lax school policy. They were concerned with nine books including Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Langston Hughes’s Best Short Stories by Negro Writers claiming they were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” The books were removed from the library in 1976. Five students challenged the book removal stating the action happened because “passages in the books offended [the group’s] social, political, and moral tastes and not because the books, taken as a whole, were lacking in educational value.” The case, conjoined by numerous libraries and free speech organizations, went to the Supreme Court. The majority held that the right to read is implied by the First Amendment and that government, including public schools, cannot restrict speech because they disagree with it. The court deemed libraries as places for “voluntary inquiry” that were outside the realm of the school board’s “absolute discretion” that they held over the classroom.[15] The majority wrote in the decision that “the right to receive ideas is a necessary predicate to the recipient’s meaningful exercise of his own rights of speech, press, and political freedom.”[16]

“Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” — Article 3, Library Bill of Rights

Chris Finan, Director of American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE) said in a 2016 interview, “There were over 300 book challenges in 2015 and themes of race, ethnicity, and sexual preference have been a large part of why those books got challenged.” Finan attributes a rise in book bans to the presidential election of Ronald Regan who had a narrow view of First Amendment rights. Library book and school board challenges suddenly accelerated, inspired by his rhetoric during his presidency, and reached 700–800 challenges a year. Finan states, “[His] election encouraged challenges by people who were unhappy with books in schools and libraries that were increasingly realistic in their depiction of life.”[17]

Assault on public schools and libraries are nothing new but they have become primary targets for religious and political extremists. Complaints are registered as an infringement on religious values or moral standards due to expressions of sexuality, issues of social or racial discrimination, political thought, or other challenges to the norms of a straight white society. The First Amendment provides public institutions protection as a corollary to freedom of speech as found in previous Supreme Court cases. In addition, the Fourteenth Amendment extended the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and intellectual freedom from state and local governments which in turn, protects public schools and libraries. Notably, the First Amendment only provides protection from government restrictions and does not apply to private individuals, businesses, so social media sites.[18]

Freedom of speech cannot apply only to some in a democracy. Our nation cannot prevent the education of children about the diversity of this country, history, or sexuality. This is what happens under autocratic or authoritative governments like Russia, China, and North Korea. It is up to each of us to challenge censorship in our public schools and libraries because if we don’t, we have consented to giving up our Constitutional right to freedom of speech.

[1] https://amp.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jan/24/us-conservatives-campaign-books-ban-schools

[2] https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/26/texas-school-books-race-sexuality/

[3] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/brief-history-book-burning-printing-press-internet-archives-180964697/

[4] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/brief-history-book-burning-printing-press-internet-archives-180964697/

[5] https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/americas-first-banned-book

[6] https://lithub.com/the-history-and-present-of-banning-books-in-america/

[7] https://readingpartners.org/blog/five-childrens-books-you-didnt-know-were-banned/

[8] https://www.freedomtoread.ca/resources/bannings-and-burnings-in-history/

[9] https://www.toledolibrary.org/blog/harry-potter-the-most-challenged-book-of-the-21st-century

[10] https://www.freedomtoread.ca/resources/bannings-and-burnings-in-history/

[11] https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=5544515174778878625&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr

[12] https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/821/ulysses

[13] https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/848/lamont-v-postmaster-general

[14]https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/censorship#:~:text=The%20right%20to%20speak%20and,music%20and%20materials%20on%20the

[15] https://billofrightsinstitute.org/e-lessons/island-trees-school-district-v-pico-1982

[16]https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/censorship#:~:text=The%20right%20to%20speak%20and,music%20and%20materials%20on%20the

[17] https://lithub.com/the-history-and-present-of-banning-books-in-america/

[18]https://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/censorship#:~:text=The%20right%20to%20speak%20and,music%20and%20materials%20on%20the

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Carolyn Edwards, PhD

PhD in urban education with a research focus on U.S. history, white supremacy, and systemic inequity