Movements to ban books in the United States have been a cause for concern and controversy nationwide. In Texas, Florida, Missouri, and Utah, book banning has become most prevalent. New policies have arisen in 2023, varying on the bases for which books should be banned.
Most recently, a new proposed book policy in public schools in Ludlow, Massachusetts, has sparked debate nationwide. This book policy aims to introduce an extensive system by which books are screened and allowed into public school libraries.
First, a district library supervisor would recommend a list of books that must be approved by the superintendent. The list would be provided to the school committee and posted publicly for 30 days, where the community may submit written comments about the list. Finally, the superintendent can make a final list.
The book policy is inspired by a system already in place in some Pennsylvania schools. Many parents and guardians of Ludlow students are concerned about obscene literature that their children may have access to. However, this policy raises concerns, given its potential to undercut public education and violate the First Amendment.
Although this policy is new to Western Massachusetts, book banning has been a controversial issue throughout American history. The first instance of book banning dates back to 1637, when a publication by Thomas Morton was deemed too critical of Puritan customs and traditional hierarchy. The first novel banned in the United States was Harriet Beacher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Literary Hub). The Confederacy banned this book from the public because it supported abolition. Historians argue that this novel marked the beginning of the Civil War.
The Comstock Act was passed in 1873, rendering it illegal to send obscene publications through mail. This law banned any anatomy or medical pamphlets with nudity and any novel that could include pornographic material. It was only until the United States Supreme Court tried the case Roth v. the United States in 1957 that the American government was forced to rethink the definition of “obscenity” when it comes to books. Since then, debates about book banning and censorship have remained controversial. Classic novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Ulysses, and even Charlotte’s Web have been challenged by school districts in recent years.
Many factors causing the controversial nature of book banning revolve around censorship and how that may affect education.
According to data from the PEN America Index of School Book Bans, 674 of the 1648 banned books “explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+,” and 659 of 1648 banned books contain, “protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color.” (Pen America) Cases of book banning nationwide have exhibited a common trend. Renetta Weaver, neuroscientist and clinical social worker, says, “Book bans are oppressive because they don’t allow people to see the range of identities that exist in their culture.”
Many experts across the country argue that book banning has the potential to create gaps in young people’s education and knowledge. Book prohibiting, whether books are banned or not, affects curriculum. Education standards become unstable when books are taken in and out of the curriculum (Southern New Hampshire University).
The book-banning policy in Western Massachusetts takes the responsibility of educating children out of the hands of teachers and grants that power to parents. While parents prioritize their children’s well-being, not all parents are education experts.
Additionally, book banning is considered censorship, violating the First Amendment. The First Amendment has been interpreted in many different ways regarding banning books. Many argue that book bans restrict information and discourage freedom of thought, undermining education's primary functions. “Book bans violate the First Amendment because they deprive children or students of the right to receive information and ideas,” says First Amendment law expert David L. Hudson Jr.
Regardless of the stance one takes on this debate, all those engaged have a common interest in mind. Whether you support book-banning policies or not, the most important factor is the next generation's well-being. While parents believe that it is their duty to protect their children from consuming pornographic, violent, and overall inappropriate media, others argue that those efforts can lead to more harm than good. Although many book-banning movements are motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ or racial discrimination, parents' concerns cannot be overlooked.
Studies show that consuming pornographic and violent material at an early age indicates negative consequences. Children are heavily influenced by the material they view. While freedom of expression and access to information is a fundamental right, protecting the well-being of children must also be prioritized.