How Book Banning Works

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.­