Banned Books – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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Jiles Masiclat reads a book at the Aviano Air Base, Italy library.
Source: Deana Heitzman, “‘Paws to Read’ Inspires Summer Reading,” aviano.af.mil, June 18, 2014
The American Library Association (ALA) has tracked book challenges, which are attempts to remove or restrict materials, since 1990. In 2019, the ALA recorded 377 reported book challenges in the United States, an 8.6% increase from the 347 reported challenges in 2018. [22] [26] In most years, about 10% of the reported challenges result in removal or ban from the school or library. However, in 2016, five of the top ten most challenged books were removed. The ALA estimates that only about 3% to 18% of challenges are reported to its Office for Intellectual Freedom, meaning that the actual number of attempts to ban books is likely much higher. [1][24]

Challenges are most frequently brought by patrons (33%), followed by parents (32%), a board or administration (13%), librarians or teachers (10%), political and religious groups (6%), elected officials (3%), and students (3%). [22] Books are most often challenged at public libraries (59%), school libraries (23%), schools (14%), academic libraries (3%), and special libraries (1%). [24]

Sexually explicit content, offensive language, and “unsuited to any age group” are the top three reasons cited for requesting a book be removed. [1] The percentage of Americans who think any books should be banned increased from 18% in 2011 to 28% in 2015, and 60% of people surveyed believed that children should not have access to books containing explicit language in school libraries, according to The Harris Poll. [3]

Is book banning a way for parents to protect their children from inappropriate material such as sex, drugs, and violence? Or is book banning blanket censorship of materials that may help readers?

Should parents or other adults be able to ban books from schools and libraries?

Pro 1

Parents have the right to decide what material their children are exposed to and when.

Having books with adult topics available in libraries limits parents’ ability to choose when their children are mature enough to read specific material. “Literary works containing explicit sex, oral sex, explicit & violent descriptions of rape, masturbation, vulgar and obscene language” were on the approved reading list for grades 7-12, according to Speak up for Standards, a group seeking age-appropriate reading materials for students in Dallas, Texas. [4] If books with inappropriate material are available in libraries, children or teens can be exposed to books their parents wouldn’t approve of before the parents even find out what their children are reading. [16] “[O]pting your child out of reading [a certain] book doesn’t protect him or her. They are still surrounded by the other students who are going to be saturated with this book,” said writer Macey France. [17]

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Pro 2

Children should not be exposed to sex, violence, drug use, or other inappropriate topics in school or public libraries.

Books in the young adult genre often contain adult themes that young people aren’t ready to experience. [18] Of the top ten most challenged books in 2019, eight had LGBTQ+ content, and three were sexually explicit. [25] According to Jenni White, a former public school science teacher, “Numerous studies on the use of graphic material by students indicate negative psychological effects,” including having “more casual sex partners and [beginning] having sex at younger ages.” [19] The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that exposure to violence in media, including in books, can impact kids by making them act aggressively and desensitizing them to violence. [17] Kim Heinecke, a mother of four, wrote to her local Superintendent of Public Schools that “It is not a matter of ‘sheltering’ kids. It is a matter of guiding them toward what is best. We are the adults. It is our job to protect them – no matter how unpopular that may seem.” [19]

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Pro 3

Keeping books with inappropriate content out of libraries protects kids, but doesn't stop people from reading those books or prevent authors from writing them.



Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council noted that removing certain books from libraries is about showing discretion and respecting a community’s values, and doesn’t prevent people from getting those books elsewhere: “It’s an exaggeration to refer to this as book banning. There is nothing preventing books from being written or sold, nothing to prevent parents from buying it or children from reading it.” [20] What some call “book banning,” many see as making responsible choices about what books are available in public and school libraries. “Is it censorship that you’re unable to go to your local taxpayer-funded branch and check out a copy of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’? For better or for worse, these books are still widely available. Your local community has simply decided that finite public resources are not going to be spent disseminating them,” Weekly Standard writer and school board member Mark Hemingway stated. [18]

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Con 1

Parents may control what their own children read, but don't have a right to restrict what books are available to other people.

Parents who don’t like specific books can have their kids “opt out” of an assignment without infringing on the rights of others. The National Coalition against Censorship explained that “Even books or materials that many find ‘objectionable’ may have educational value, and the decision about what to use in the classroom should be based on professional judgments and standards, not individual preferences.” [6] In the 1982 Supreme Court ruling on Board of Education v. Pico, Justice Brennan wrote that taking books off of library shelves could violate students’ First Amendment rights, adding that “Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” [21]

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Con 2

Many frequently challenged books help people get a better idea of the world and their place in it.



Robie H. Harris, author of frequently challenged children’s books including It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing up, Sex, and Sexual Health, stated, “I think these books look at the topics, the concerns, the worry, the fascination that kids have today… It’s the world in which they’re living.” [8] Many books that have long been considered to be required reading to become educated about literature and American history are frequently challenged, such as: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. [9] 46 of the Radcliffe Publishing Group’s “Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century” are frequently challenged; banning them would deprive students of essential cultural and historical knowledge, as well as differing points of view. [9]

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Con 3

Books are a portal to different life experiences and reading encourages empathy and social-emotional development.

One study found that reading J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which is frequently challenged for religious concerns about witchcraft, “improved attitudes” about immigrants, homosexuals, and refugees. [11] Another study found that reading narrative fiction helped readers understand their peers and raised social abilities. [12][13] A study in Basic and Applied Social Psychology found that people who read a story about a Muslim woman were less likely to make broad judgments based on race. [14] Neil Gaiman, author of the frequently challenged novel Neverwhere, among other books, stated that fiction “build[s] empathy… You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed. Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.” [15]

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Source: American Library Association, “Top 11 Challenged Books of 2019,” ala.org (accessed Apr. 21, 2020)

Footnotes:

  1. American Library Association, “Banned & Challenged Books,” ala.org (accessed Sep. 18, 2017)
  2. American Library Association, “Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2016,” ala.org (accessed Sep. 18, 2017)
  3. The Harris Poll, Adults Are More Likely To Believe There Are Books That Should Be Banned Than Movies, Television Shows, or Video Games,” theharrispoll.com, July 8, 2015
  4. Speak up for Standards homepage, accessed via archive.org, Feb. 25, 2017
  5. Clare Trapasso, “Queens Sixth-Graders No Longer Must Read Racy ‘Diary of a Part-Time Indian,'” nydailynews.com, Aug. 1, 2013
  6. National Coalition against Censorship, “Censorship and the First Amendment in Schools: A Resource Guide,” webjunction.org, May 9, 2016
  7. Robert P. Doyle, “Books Challenged or Banned in 2015-2016,” ila.org (accessed Sep. 18, 2017)
  8. Jessica Gross, “Unsuited to Any Age Group,” lareviewofbooks, Sep. 26, 2014
  9. American Library Association, “Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century,” ala.org (accessed Sep. 18, 2017)
  10. Rick Abbott, “‘Where Is the Line?’ Book Pulled from Minnesota School Shelves after Superintendent Deems It ‘Vulgar,'” dglobe.com, May 18, 2017
  11. Loris Vezzali, et al., “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, July 23, 2014
  12. Raymond A. Mar, et al., “Bookworms Versus Nerds: Exposure to Fiction Versus Non-Fiction, Divergent Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of Fictional Social Worlds,” Journal of Research in Personality, 2006
  13. David Comer Kidd, et al., “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” sciencemag.org, Oct. 18, 2013
  14. Dan R. Johnson, Brandie L. Huffman, and Danny M. Jasper, “Changing Race Boundary Perception by Reading Narrative Fiction,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Feb. 10, 2014
  15. Neil Gaiman, “Neil Gaiman: Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming,” theguardian.com, Oct. 15, 2013
  16. Kate Messner, “An Important Conversation about Elementary Library Book Selection & Omission,” katemessner.com, June 14, 2016
  17. Macey France, “THIS Is Common Core-Approved for Children?,” politichicks.com, July 30, 2015
  18. Mark Hemingway, “In Defense of Book Banning,” thefederalist.com, Mar. 11, 2014
  19. Jenni White, “Parents Shouldn’t Let Schools Force Kids To Read Smut,” thefederalist.com, Mar. 15, 2016
  20. Finlo Rohrer, “Why Are Parents Banning School Books?,” bbc.co.uk, Sep. 27, 2010
  21. US Supreme Court, “Island Trees Sch. Dist. v. Pico by Pico 457 U.S. 853 (1982),” supreme.justia.com, June 25, 1982
  22. ALA, “Censorship by the Numbers,” ala.org (accessed Aug. 31, 2018)
  23. ALA, “Top Ten most Challenged Books List,” ala.org (accessed Aug. 31, 2018)
  24. ALA, “Censorship by the Numbers,” ala.org (accessed Sep. 18, 2019)
  25. ALA, “Top 11 Challenged Books of 2018,” ala.org (accessed Sep. 18, 2019)
  26. ALA, “Top 10 Most Challenged Books Lists,” ala.org (accessed Apr. 21, 2020)