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Banning Books in America: A Tale as Old as Time

According to recent news, a Utah school district recently decided to remove the Holy Bible from several state elementary and middle school libraries. Since its implementation, many have also expressed their complaints about the Book of Mormon, citing its sensitive contents as something that should be considered.

Since this complaint, The Davis school district (which serves Davis County) said they would consider these accounts but will also assess the Book of Mormon’s contents. Some sensitive topics in the Book of Mormon referenced battles, beheadings, and kidnappings.

However, religious books aren’t the only ones facing challenges and removals. In Florida, books depicting or referencing race, sexuality, sexual orientation, etc., have been pulled off shelves or challenged. This instance resulted from passing Republican-led legislatures like the Stop WOKE Act, which prohibits teaching Critical Race Theory. The Don’t Say Gay Bill also plays a part and bans discussions involving gender and sexual orientation for many young students.

This extreme instance has led to criticisms from various people in the country. Some have wondered how such movements could affect people’s freedom of speech and other problems surrounding forced censorship.

Nevertheless, those who strongly oppose the legislation have showcased their stance by distributing banned books for free. Meanwhile, specific organizations start filing lawsuits citing the ban’s violation of the First Amendment and Equal Protection clause.

However, 2023’s Bible Ban isn’t the first (nor the last) book ban in the United States. Here are some facts you may need to learn about book banning and why it’s so common in the country.

A Brief History of Banning Books in America:

  • PEN America is an organization that aims to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide by ensuring people have the freedom to create literature, convey ideas, express their views, and access the opinions of others. It was founded on April 19, 1922, and offers various programs that defend writers and journalists and secure free expression rights in the country and worldwide.
  • PEN America also records book ban incidents across the country, although book banning has been a practice for centuries.
  • For instance, the first book ban in the country was written by an English businessman Thomas Morton, who harshly criticized Puritan customs in his tell-all book, “New English Canaan,” published in 1637.
  • Since then, book bans and strict discussion regulations of its contents have become a part of American history. In the first half of the 19th century, materials discussing anti-slavery and abolitionist sentiments, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” were publicly burned and banned by slaveholders.
  • However, this war against books officially went federal in 1873 with the Comstock Act. This law makes it illegal for citizens to own “obscene” or “immoral” texts. The act also covers making it illegal for people to mail these items. Anthony Comstock, the crusader who championed this act, wanted to ban discussions surrounding sexuality and birth control—the latter of which was widely available via mail order. The act remained in effect until 1936.
  • Jim Crow-era South was also an active period of book bans, where a children’s book depicting a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit created controversy because opponents deemed it “encouraged interracial relationships.”
  • Book bans don’t just affect readers and writers, it also affects librarians, who fear acquiring material that is considered controversial. Since the McCarthy era, librarians often confront unspoken and overt “blacklists” of so-called subversive titles and authors. Many of these librarians have faced pressure, and while some succeeded in resisting these pressures, their efforts stayed relatively invisible.

Censorship in Today’s Era:

Book bans are still common even if today’s society is deemed more acceptable than previous generations. However, between July 2021 and March 2022, there had been 1,586 book bans in 86 schools across 26 states. This finding is especially concerning since many books banned included discussions surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, race and racism, sexual content, and even death and grief.

In 2022, the most challenged book was Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir.” The memoir, written and illustrated by Kobabe, chronicles their life and experiences regarding gender and sexual identity. Since then, it has been banned five times in 18 months.

What Are Some Reasons Why Books are “Challenged” in the Country?

According to the American Library Association, some of the reasons why books are challenged (and sometimes banned) include the following:

1. The material was deemed “sexually explicit.”

2. The material contained “offensive language.”

3. The material was considered “unsuited to any age group.”

Many of these reasons point to the desire to protect children from “inappropriate” content. While the motivation is admirable, Access to Library Resources and Services for Minors believes that only parents have the power to restrict or allow the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.

Conclusion:

With these facts and figures in mind, challenging or banning books is not a new instance or occurrence. On the other hand, it may just be one of the most prevalent movements in American history.

Nevertheless, America isn’t the only country with challenging censorship laws. If anything, the United States of America has more freedom in expressing its stance on whether banning specific topics is moral or immoral. Nevertheless, the possibilities of what happens after book censorship remain the same.

As we slowly move on to the next phase of history, it’s safe to say that finding a middle ground on what benefits most can undoubtedly make way for a more diplomatic and democratic society.

Key Takeaways:

  • Book banning plays a big part in American history dating from the 17th century.
  • Books criticizing, mocking, satirizing, or discussing specific “controversial” topics are usually why some books were banned.
  • Many believe parents have the right to decide whether their children can or can’t consume certain books.
  • Book challenges and censorship don’t just harm authors and readers; they also harm librarians, who face immense pressure from concerned parents or radical political groups.
  • America isn’t the only country with a history of banned books.

Finding the middle ground between handling specific material and providing access can create a more democratic society.

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