Attempts to ban books in schools has been in the news lately and Pennsylvania is no exception with nearly 500 books banned in the last two years. While school districts have the power to select and, in some cases, remove books from public schools, there are important limitations on a school’s ability to ban books.
What is a Book Ban?
A book ban occurs when a school official removes or restricts student access to a book that was previously available. This is typically due to the content of the book and often arises through a parent or community challenge.
What Books are Being Targeted?
The reasons for books being targeted vary widely. In some instances, challenges focus on “sexual content” or “implied depictions of sexual acts” or language that some find offensive. Others target books based on ideas that some find controversial such as references to race, racism or LGBTQ+ themes. Most often, people promoting a book ban claim they are “protecting” students from harmful ideas or information.
School Board’s Authority to Remove Books
School boards have the authority to remove books, provided that they comply with federal and state law, including the First Amendment. Students have a First Amendment right to read and receive information and schools cannot target certain viewpoints to be prohibited. Boards have the broadest discretion over books assigned as a part of the curriculum, with responsibility to adopt a course of study that is adapted to the “age, development and needs of the pupils” in the school.
Federal courts have largely affirmed the discretion of school boards under the First Amendment to make these choices. The Supreme Court has recognized that school boards have a “duty to inculcate community values” and may make curricular decisions to reflect those values. This discretion is not limitless, and school boards may not impose, for example, “an identifiable religious creed” or “otherwise impair permanently the student’s ability to investigate matters that arise in the natural course of intellectual inquiry,” but their discretion is broad.
Courts have found that legitimate pedagogical concerns include regulating student access to books for being “pervasively vulgar,” for containing sexually explicit content or “factual inaccuracies,” or for “educational unsuitability.
Boards Have Less Discretion Over Library Books
Pennsylvania school boards have less discretion in restricting noncurricular materials in schools, such as library books. The Supreme Court has held that “the special characteristics of the school library” create additional First Amendment protections for students. The U.S. Supreme Court, when addressing the discretion a school board has over library content, stated that a school board “may not, consistently with the spirit of the First Amendment, contract the spectrum of available knowledge” by proscribing a narrow view of “community values” that limit the books available in a school library where the “opportunity at self-education and individual enrichment … is wholly optional.”
The Supreme Court has held that school boards may not remove books from a school library “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books” or in an effort “to prescribe what must be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”
In practice, this means that school boards may not remove a library book because it is “too concerned with racial matters and too controversial.” School boards also may not remove a book simply because it depicts gay or lesbian relationships. Further, school boards may not remove or restrict a library book based on an unfounded “concern that the books might promote disobedience and disrespect for authority” or because a book deals with “witchcraft”— a common complaint against the Harry Potter series.
The First Amendment requires school districts to have “established, regular, and facially unbiased procedures” governing the removal of noncurricular books. As a parent, you should become familiar with your district’s policies for book removal. Check to see that your school district has a policy and is following its approved policy. Whatever your opinion, its important for all interested persons – both parents and students – to have the opportunity for their opinions to be heard and considered.