Book Bans and Challenges: Threats to Freedom of Speech
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Book Bans and Challenges: Threats to Freedom of Speech

Documentary About Book Bans and Book Challenges

Documentaries typically involve a real-life situation with actual witnesses. But a documentary can also be about a fictional or imaginary event.

While freedom of speech is a fundamental right in the United States, some people still try to ban books from schools and libraries because they don’t like the content. This is called censorship.

What is a book ban?

A book ban occurs when a book is removed from a library or school due to an objection from individuals with authority. It may be a formal legal prohibition, as in Tennessee’s 1925 law prohibiting the teaching of evolution or the more informal pressure from groups like the McCarthy era or students who asked teachers to drop communist or socialist books from their courses.

A banned book can also be an outright censorship enacted by government bureaucrats or dictators such as in the People’s Republic of China, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union where the possession of banned books could lead to imprisonment or even execution. But a ban is not the same as curation, which is common practice in libraries and schools through regular best practices of collection maintenance and weeding. This is different from the political stance of conservatives that equate a lack of explicit graphic content with a ban, or progressives who blacklist books they dislike, as demonstrated by California Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent picture in a cafe with Toni Morrison’s Beloved and To Kill a Mockingbird on the table.

What is a book challenge?

A book challenge occurs when an individual or group requests that a library, school, bookstore or publisher remove books from the shelves because they object to their content, ideas or themes. Challenges can be initiated by parents, religious/political groups, teachers and elected officials.

ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles lists of challenged books each year in order to inform the public about censorship efforts that impact libraries and schools. While these lists do not represent a complete picture of challenges since many are not reported to OIF or covered by the media, they can provide a snapshot of trends over time.

While there has been progress in publishing more diverse books, recent trends in book challenges and bannings threaten to undermine these gains. You can help fight this by advocating for diversity in your local communities, schools and libraries by raising awareness about book challenges and educating others on what censorship is. Banned Books Week, an annual event that takes place the last week of September, is a great opportunity to do this.

What is a library ban?

A book ban is when an objection to the content of a book results in that book being removed from classroom and school library bookshelves. It does not apply to cases where a book is withdrawn following best practices of collection maintenance and “weeding” that are content-neutral.

Activists and parents have taken up the cause of banning books that they believe don’t reflect their worldview or that allegedly promote “anti-family” behavior. They are attempting to impose their views on the rest of the country, regardless of whether those views align with those of the majority.

Grassroot organizers are responding to these attempts to restrict access to the full range of literary options. They are putting banned books in Little Free Libraries, holding book giveaways, and organizing school and district-wide campaigns to restore access to the titles that have been targeted by local and state officials. This is censorship, and it is dangerous to our democracy.

What is a school ban?

A school ban is when a book or books are restricted from classroom and library shelves, either permanently or temporarily, following a formal challenge to the material. This type of restriction, which is documented in PEN America’s first edition of Banned in the USA (April 2022), violates procedural best practices and limits librarians and teachers’ professional autonomy.

Increasingly, these challenges are being made not by individuals acting alone but by political and advocacy groups with national and state-level reach. In the past year, PEN America has identified at least 50 such organizations with national, regional, and local chapters, many of which actively publicize their efforts to pressure schools to restrict and ban books.

These campaigns often include a drive to change the legal definition of obscenity, meaning that a single phrase or image could be enough to put a book in jeopardy of removal. In addition, they target books featuring characters of color, LGBTQ+ themes, and nonfiction histories on civil rights movements and Supreme Court justices.

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