Are Book Bans Un-American?

Louis A. Bedford IV writes “Book bans are un-American” in an editorial in the March 5, 2023 edition of The Dallas Morning News. As in all things in Texas, book banning is the biggest in the Lone Star state. Texas leads the nation with 800 books. Dan Solomon’s article in the September issue of Texas Monthly reports that Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee accounted for more than 85% of the total book bans.

Mr. Bedford cites two Supreme Court cases that ruled against book banning as a violation of students’ right to books.

Bedford writes that book banning restricts “the free access of the most powerful tool at our disposal: information.” He adds that banning books because the “views they include … goes against the ideals of Americanism.”

“The banning of books and information paves a dangerous road toward tyranny.”

“By standing up for intellectual freedom and opposing book banning and other limits to information, we can help ensure that our society remains one that values knowledge, critical thinking, and individual autonomy – the true values of America.”[1]

Why Are Books Banned?

Banned books are books or other printed works such as essays or plays which are prohibited by law or to which free access is not permitted by other means. The practice of banning books is a form of censorship, for political, legal, religious, moral, or (less often) commercial motives. The Freedom to Read Website lists notable banned books and works with a brief explanation of why the books were prohibited. Banned books include fictional works such as novels, poems, and plays and non-fiction works such as biographies and dictionaries.

Historically, banning books or censoring texts are often seen when authoritarian regimes try to suppress certain messages it does not want to spread. Pre-World War II Germany saw mass book burnings and bans that tried to remove any statements which positively portrayed Jewish people. Banning and censoring texts is often portrayed as a restriction of First Amendment rights.[2]

The Freedom to Read Website provides “a selective timeline of book bannings, burnings, and other censorship activities.”

First Ammendment Protection

The First Amendment protects individuals against the government’s “abridging the freedom of speech.” However, government actions that are sometimes labeled as censorship may not be violations of these constitutional rights. Banning books by schools and libraries is not always classified as constitutional or unconstitutional, because “censorship” is a colloquial term, not a legal term.

Colloquialism which is also called colloquial language, everyday language, or general parlance, is the language style used for casual or informal communication. It is the most common functional style of speech. It is the language that is normally used in conversation and other informal contexts.[3]

Some principles can illuminate whether and when book banning is unconstitutional.

Censorship does not violate the Constitution unless the government does it.

For example, if the government tries to forbid certain types of protests solely because of the viewpoint of the protesters, that is an unconstitutional restriction on speech. The government cannot create laws or allow lawsuits that keep you from having particular books on your bookshelf unless the substance of those books fits into a narrowly defined unprotected category of speech such as obscenity or libel. Even these unprotected categories are defined in precise ways that are still very protective of speech.

However, the government may enact reasonable regulations that restrict the “time, place or manner” of your speech. It must do so in ways that are content- and viewpoint-neutral. The government cannot restrict an individual’s ability to produce or listen to speech based on the topic of the speech or the ultimate opinions expressed.

If the government does try to restrict speech in these ways, it is probably unconstitutional censorship.

What is Not Unconstitutional

In contrast, when private individuals, companies, and organizations create policies or engage in activities that suppress people’s ability to speak, these private actions don’t violate the Constitution.

Private actions can have a major impact on a person’s ability to speak freely and the creation and distribution of ideas. Book burning or the actions of private universities in punishing faculty for sharing unpopular ideas prohibits free discussion and unrestrained development of ideas and knowledge.

When Schools Can Ban Books

It’s hard to definitively say whether the current incidents of book banning in schools are constitutional. This is because decisions made in public schools are analyzed by the courts differently from censorship in nongovernment contexts.

According to the Supreme Court, control over public education is for “the most part” given to “state and local authorities.” The government has the power to determine what is appropriate for students and thus the curriculum at their school.

However, students retain some First Amendment rights. Public schools may not censor students’ speech, either on or off campus, unless it is causing a “substantial disruption.”

Government and school officials may exert control over the school curriculum without violating students’ or educators’ free-speech rights.

There are exceptions to the government’s power over the school curriculum. The Supreme Court ruled that a state law banning a teacher from covering the topic of evolution was unconstitutional because it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the state from endorsing a particular religion.

School boards and state legislators usually have the final decision over what schools teach. State regulation of curriculum is generally constitutionally permissible unless they violate some other provision(s) of the Constitution.

Schools with limited resources have the discretion to determine which books to add to their libraries. However, several members of the Supreme Court have written that removal is constitutionally permitted only if it is done based on the educational appropriateness of the book, not because it was intended to deny students access to books with which school officials disagree.

The Next Step

Even though the government has the option to control what’s taught in school, the First Amendment ensures the right of free speech to those who want to protest what’s happening in schools.[4]

Parents have the right to prohibit their children from reading specific books or discussing certain topics. This authority has been in effect for many years. I object when a parent or group of parents enforces their wishes on all students. Parents have the right to complain about this because it denies their student(s) access to books. Students also have the right to read and discuss books outside of school.

I am also alarmed at the book-banning techniques used by groups to attack, slander, and threaten teachers, librarians, school board members, and other individuals who oppose their actions. These heavy-handed measures have no place in public discourse.  

Groups Fighting Book Bans

[1] Louis A. Bedford IV, “Book bans are un-American,” The Dallas Morning News, March 5, 2023.

[2] Bannings and Burnings in History, Freedom to Read Website,  retrieved March 5, 2023.

[3] Colloquialism, Wikipedia, retrieved March 5, 2023.

[4]When are book bans unconstitutional? A First Amendment scholar explains,” The Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee University, retrieved March 5, 2023.

About Allen Mesch

Allen is an author, educator, and historian. He has written six books: The Analyst; Teacher of Civil War Generals; Your Affectionate Father, Charles F. Smith; Charles A. Marvin - "One Year. Six Months, and Eleven Days", Preparing for Disunion, and Ebenezer Allen - Statesman, Entrepreneur, and Spy. He taught classes on the American Civil War at Collin College. He has visited more than 130 Civil War sites and given presentations at Civil War Roundtables.
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