How Book Banning Works

Juvenile and school literature are the top targets for attempted book bans.
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From 2005 to 2007, Georgia resident Laura Mallory unsuccessfully attempted to ban Harry Potter books from the libraries in the Gwinnett County school system. The seven-part series about the young wizard by J.K. Rowling ranks as the most challenged set of books since 2000 [source: American Library Association]. Mallory's efforts are among the more than 3,000 challenges against the book based on what opponents perceive to be Satanic undertones.

According to the American Library Association that compiles information on book banning requests annually, parents like Mallory are the most common sources of the complaints. Although frequently banned titles include "The Grapes of Wrath," "Ulysses" and "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," juvenile literature like the Harry Potter books receive the most scrutiny. In fact, a majority of book banning cases relate to works found in school libraries rather than in public ones.


Before a book becomes banned, someone must first challenge it. The American Library Association defines a challenge as "an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group." A successful challenge results in a ban.

Each year, libraries across the United States report hundreds of challenges. The leading causes for contesting a book are sexually explicit content, offensive language and inappropriate subjects for minors [source: American Library Association]. Only a minority of the requests actually make it through to banning the book from its respective library.

When filling their shelves, librarians do not judge the content of books on whether it would be suitable for all audiences. As public institutions, libraries may not discriminate on disseminating information on the basis of age, sex or race, which means that people can check out whatever materials they choose. That said, libraries request that parents and guardians of minors monitor their selections.

Generally, libraries follow content development policies when adding new titles. These policies govern the selection process and are assessed and approved by the library board. Most books have often been reviewed by professional librarians or book discussion groups or requested by patrons.

What is the legal background behind book banning, and why do most challenges dead end? On the next page we'll discuss legal precedents for book bans.

Book Banning and the Law

Lolita by Vladamir Nabokov was initially banned from sale in the United States.
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Book banning has existed into the farthest reaches of literary history. Socrates was charged in 399 B.C. for corrupting the minds of youth [source: Shaw]. Until the invention of the printing press in 1450, burning literature effectively halted its spread. However the ability to print and reprint copies of a work brought with it the emergence of the book ban. Licensing laws regulated by the English monarchy of Henry VIII and the Roman Catholic Church are among the earliest examples of this.

As mentioned earlier, much of the American legal precedent for banning books relates to public school libraries. In 1982, the landmark case of Board of Education, Island Trees School District v. Pico found that school officials could not remove library material because they disagreed with the ideas behind it. Protecting the rights of students to express as well as receive information, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a book or periodical must be "pervasively vulgar" to constitute adequate ground for banning.


Nevertheless, a few years later, the Supreme Court ruled that school officials could censor student journalists. The 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier differentiated between the rights of public school students and those of adults, stating that the school newspaper was not a form of public expression [source: Justia]. The Hazelwood decision has granted school officials added leeway for censoring classroom curriculum as well.

As open forums of ideas, public libraries are adverse to banning books for fear of the slippery slope of censorship. Even the implications of the Patriot Act's section 215 that grants the government authority to look into people's library records have struck a negative chord with library professionals.

Nevertheless, hundreds of people file complaints with libraries each year to remove certain books, exercising their rights of expression. Although the initial decision for complying with such a request lies with the individual libraries, higher courts will emphasize the First Amendment protection, except in the case of legally obscene materials.­

Obscene Literature and the Miller Test

Even after the U.S. Congress adopted the First Amendment in 1791, the nicknamed Comstock Acts of 1873 barred obscene literature from interstate commerce. Today, the constitution does not protect obscene literature. Miller v. California established a three-point test for obscenity. To meet the standards, the text must:

  • Appeal to prurient interests when taken as a whole
  • Involve patently offensive sexual conducts
  • Contain no literary, artistic, political or scientific value

This heavy burden of proof for obscenity rests with the party desiring censorship to ensure that freedom of speech and the press are not silenced [source: Cornell University Law School]. The Miller test also helps prevent prior restraint, or preventing people from writing and printing because of the legal threat. It also reduces the chilling effect of censorship that constrains the expression and reception of information. Thanks to this legal interpretation, books such as "Lolita" and "Ulysses" that the United States initially banned from circulation were eventually released.


To read more about book banning, read the links on the next page.

How Book Banning Works: Author’s Note

Cristen Conger, Staff Writer
hsw 2009

Each year, during the last week in September, the American Library Association encourages people to celebrate Banned Books Week. With that in mind, I set out to find out how banning a book works, what types of books ruffle the most feathers and why people would go to the trouble of keeping titles such as "Where's Waldo?" out of kids' and adults' hands.

As a lifelong reader, the topic also was of particular interest to me, remembering my childhood and those weekly trips to the library I used to look forward to. I'd leave loaded down with foot-high stacks of titles. Having studied the First Amendment in journalism school, the article research became a surprisingly nostalgic process at times. But while my personal background steers me toward the more liberal end of the free speech debate, the article sticks to the facts to provide reliable background information to inform, rather than sway, banned books discussions.



  • American Libraries. "Harry Potter Foe Loses Fourth Challenge." June 1, 2007. (April 28, 2008) 2007/june2007/potterfourth.cfm
  • American Library Association. "Kids and Libraries: What You Should Know." 1999. (April 28, 2008)
  • Cornell University Law School. "Obscenity and Prior Restraint." CRS Annotated Constitution. (April 28, 2008) amdt1bfrag3_user.html#amdt1b_hd9
  • Foerstel, Herman N. "Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Libraries." IAP. 2006. (April 28, 2008)
  • Manzo, Kathleen Kennedy. "Challenged." Education Week. Sept. 27, 2006. (April 28, 2008)
  • McMasters, Paul K. "Libraries & First Amendment." First Amendment Center. Updated November 2006. (April 28, 2008)
  • Shaw, Amy. "Censorship Timeline." Leading Issues Timelines. Winter 2007.

Book Banning: Cheat Sheet

Stuff You Need to Know:

  • Juvenile literature is -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- the most commonly banned genre. Since 2000, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has received more banning requests than any other literary collection.
  • Book bans happen on a library-by-library basis, with a majority of book ban requests submitted to school libraries, rather than public libraries.
  • The U.S. Constitution doesn't protect obscene literature from censure, but in order to foster free speech, the Supreme Court maintains a heavy burden of proof for obscenity cases.

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