Book Bans: The Latest Blow to Public Education?

By Abigail Palotas, Staff Writer

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As the widely known and greatly loved Dr. Seuss said, “The more you read the more things you know. The more that you learn the more places you’ll go.”[1] Reading is fundamental in our education system and society. It is a form of relaxation and leisure for many. Yet, book bans are a major legal issue currently facing students across the United States, even in the smallest towns and rural areas. Since 2021, there have been more than 1,500 decisions to ban books in public schools nationally and 456 book bans in Pennsylvania.[2]

A book ban occurs when a school administrator or other personnel removes or restricts student access to a book that was previously available, based on the content of that book.[3] In 1982, the United States Supreme Court issued a noncommittal ruling in Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico.[4] The Court deemed that “local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs” and that discretion must be exercised in a manner that complies with the First Amendment.”[5] In Pico, a parent group complained about nine books, which board members described as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.”[6] The books were removed in 1976, but a group of students challenged their removal, and the Supreme Court, noting that “the special characteristics of the school library make that environment especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students,” ultimately ruled in the students’ favors.[7]

The Supreme Court used the Miller Test to determine whether the content in a book was too obscene to be protected by the First Amendment.[8] The test looked at whether a work appealed to the “prurient” interests of a person, meaning it incited an excessive or “unhealthy” interest in sexual matters, as well as if the work depicted sexual conduct in a “patently offensive way,” and whether it lacked any literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.[9] If the work met these criteria, it was considered legally obscene.[10] Most legal experts agree that the Miller Test’s standard sets a high bar to prove obscenity, and most books in a school library would not meet it, at least because of their literary value, but school boards do not have to adhere to the test when deciding age-appropriateness.[11]

America has traditionally prided itself on local control of education, including control executed via parental involvement in school board issues, such as curriculum.[12] Theoretically, local book bans are representative of the community’s interests.[13] Despite the fact that students themselves select what they read from libraries, school boards can still remove books if they have standard policies in place to do so.[14] Policies with processes for formally challenging and reviewing materials do not violate the First Amendment.[15] In Pennsylvania, school boards have the power to remove books so long as they comply with federal and state law, including the First Amendment. Students have the First Amendment right to read and receive information.[16] School boards have greater authority to select or remove books that are part of the curriculum, with less latitude over books that are optional, including library books.[17] However, in general, most school districts lack the legal resources to correctly interpret the law regarding the removal of books.

Now, the book banning movement is targeting publishers.[18] In Tennessee, a new law just signed by Governor Bill Lee, makes it a felony for a book publisher, distributor, or seller to provide “obscene matter” to a public school serving any K-12 students. Those found to have violated the prohibition would face between one and six years in prison and a fine of at least $10,000.[19] In Texas, HB 900, which just passed in the state’s House of Representatives, would require book vendors to give books with any reference to sex a rating of either “sexually explicit” or “sexually relevant.”[20] Books rated “sexually explicit” could not be sold to schools, and those deemed “sexually relevant” would require parental approval for students to access.[21] At the federal level, Florida Republican Representative Cory Mills, introduced H.R. 863 in February, which would “prohibit a publishing house from knowingly furnishing sexually explicit material to a school or an educational agency,” and would ban the provision of federal funds to any school that obtains sexually explicit material or to any educational agency that distributes it.[22]

There is a recent wave of censorship efforts in the form of book bans across our nation. Opponents of book bans argue that by restricting information and discouraging freedom of thought, book bans prevent students from learning to think for themselves.[23] The more we teach our students, as Dr. Seuss said, the more places they will go. Reading is just the beginning of an educational journey which opens doors for students to discover who they are and who they hope to become. The future of our nation rests in the hands of our youth. We are dependent upon them to heal the divisions in our country, and that begins here and now, with the books they read.



[3] Ibid.

[4]  Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, 457 US 853 (1982).

[5] Id. at 853.

[6] Id. at 857.

[7]; Id. at 868 and 872.


[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.


[13] Ibid


[15] Ibid.


[17] Ibid.


[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.


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