Efforts to ban books in public schools and public libraries reached an all-time high in 2022 and show few signs of abating for 2023, according to the American Library Association.
The recent movement to remove books appears to be a coordinated campaign taking place at both the state and local levels; it often targets books that address race, gender or both. Some of these efforts have resulted in laws that threaten to jail librarians.
Most Americans oppose removing books from libraries. That may explain why Illinois recently enacted a law that outlaws banning books: If any public library in the state bans materials because of “partisan or doctrinal” disapproval, it will be ineligible for state funds.
Bans – and the banning of bans – have already ended up in the courts. For example, in a lawsuit in Florida, a First Amendment advocacy group, a publisher, parents and authors whose books have been targeted filed suit against the Escambia County School District’s removal of 10 books and restriction of 100 others in the school library. They alleged that school officials violated students’ First Amendment rights when they removed books that discussed, race, racism and LGBTQ+ people. The case is ongoing.
One or more of these sorts of cases could end up at the Supreme Court – but until then, the lower courts will look to existing precedent, set in a legal ruling that dates back to 1982. In that ruling, the court declared that school personnel have a lot of discretion related to the content of their libraries, but this “discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner.”
My analysis of that 1982 case, Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, finds useful information that can help put these book ban lawsuits in context.
The case specifically focused on the school library and was not about curriculum in the classroom. A school board on Long Island, New York, wanted certain books removed from the shelves of the junior high and high school libraries because board members believed the books to be, they said, “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.”
The banned titles originated in a list compiled by a conservative organization that deemed them objectionable.
One student, on behalf of four other students in the school district, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court. The suit claimed that removing the books from the library infringed upon the students’ First Amendment rights to freely access ideas and information.
The school board prevailed in U.S. District Court because the judge found that school boards should have discretion in those matters. But the appeals court overturned that ruling, saying the fact that the school board’s reasoning relied in part on external evaluations of the books raised concerns about censorship.