Can It Happen Here? – The Return of Book-Banning and Burning in the United States

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

A book burning bonfire is held in Nashville, Tennessee, led by pastor Greg Locke

Introduction

Over the past few years, public school boards and state governments across the United States have turned their focus to restricting specific books from being taught in their classrooms or circulating in school libraries. Books about sexual identity, sexual activity, gender identity, and racial identity have been especially targeted. Capitalizing on parental concerns, both local and state politicians have advocated for the removal of certain books from school libraries and curricula. Amidst bannings, book burnings have also grown in number.

Overview

Historical Analysis

Point / Counterpoint

Below are select commentaries featuring additional opinions on the issue. When reading, identify the author’s key arguments and how their perspective fits into the book banning trend more broadly—while at first glance the pieces below may seem strictly for or against book censorship, the points made by each author are more nuanced.

Discussion Questions

  1. What published content, if any, might justify a book being banned or restricted from schools, libraries, etc.?
  2. To what extent do recent book bannings fit into broader US political and social trends?
  3. Regarding the public education system, should members of local school boards have the power to control the course material taught in their schools? How does the distribution of educational administrative powers across federal, state, and local governments affect book bannings? Furthermore, what rights do parents have in controlling what their children are taught and exposed to in public education?
  4. Should book burning be considered a symbolic demonstration and thus an act of Free Speech, or an act of censorship?
  5. When considering incarcerated populations, do federal and state governments have freer legal grounds to ban published materials from circulating in prisons? Are there greater legal obstacles when censoring the same materials in non-incarcerated populations?
  6. Among proponents of book banning, to what extent does their perception of a book’s content and its effects on readers, align or not align with the actual content of a banned book? How have social and cultural perceptions distorted the “true meaning” or purpose of a publication? Is there an objective “true meaning” or intent of every published work?
  7. Are writers whose books are banned from schools, libraries, etc. having their right to Free Speech restricted?
  8. Are individuals who are unable to read a book because their local or state government has banned it having their right to Free Speech restricted? 
  9. How can banned books be reinstated in libraries and public school curricula? Should banned books be reinstated?

Activity

Click on these themes below: Artistic Expression + Legal Action + Identity

Discuss: What does this confluence of stories with these filters tell us about free speech issues and book bannings in America? Free speech and the availability of information?

Tracker Entries

Themes

Categories

This course module was prepared by Logan Richman ’25, a sophomore in the Georgetown School of Foreign Service from New Jersey. He serves as the principal research assistant for the Free Speech Project, and also plays the jazz trombone.