Book Banning

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BOOK BANNING has existed in America since colonial times, when legislatures and royal governors enacted laws against blasphemy and seditious libel. Legislatures in the early American republic passed laws against obscenity. Though freedom of the press has grown significantly over the course of the twentieth century, book banning and related forms of censorship have persisted due to cyclical concerns about affronts to cultural, political, moral, and religious orthodoxy.

Books can be restricted by an outright ban or through less overt forms of social or political pressure. One formal method is a legislative prohibition of certain subjects and texts being taught in schools, including Tennessee's 1925 law proscribing the teaching of evolution in schools (which led to the Scopes "Monkey Trial"). In Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), the Supreme Court invalidated a similar law in Arkansas. Informal banning, which John Stuart Mill considered even more pernicious to liberty, also occurs. During the McCarthy era, many college instructors dropped communist and socialist books from courses due to informal pressures.

Another method of book banning occurs through postal and customs restrictions. The federal government has prohibited the importation and interstate shipment of obscene works since the middle of the nineteenth century, most famously by the so-called Comstock Act (1873), which is still in effect in modified form. Since 1960, literary works dealing with sexual themes have enjoyed strong First Amendment protection, but before this time the U.S. Post and Customs Offices banned classic works such as Ulysses, Leaves of Grass, Tropic of Cancer, and God's Little Acre. Only after a federal court extended First Amendment protection to D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover in Grove Press v. Christenberry (1959) have works with literary merit been assured of escaping federal censorship.

Book banning also prominently takes the form of removing books from libraries or other sources. During the 1950s, the banning of liberal and left-wing books was widespread. In the last decade, censors have targeted such allegedly "politically incorrect" books as Huckleberry Finn and Lolita. Traditional moralists have continued to single out books dealing with controversial social and sexual subjects, including teenage sexual exploration, such as in Judy Blume's Forever, homosexuality in Michael Willhoite's Daddy's Roommate, and racial tensions, such as in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In 1982, the Supreme Court heard a case where a school board removed Slaughterhouse-Five, The Naked Ape, and Soul on Ice from the school library for being "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy." The Court ruled in Board of Education Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico that books may not be removed if the decision to do so is motivated by disapproval of the viewpoint expressed in the book.

Donald A.Downs

Martin J.Sweet

See alsoCensorship, Press and Artistic ; First Amendment .