Intellectual Freedom: Censorship Is a Civil Rights Issue

How are you fighting back against book bans and censorship in your community?

Preserving a student’s right to read in the classroom is vital as book banning efforts spread like wildfire.

Books have been challenged or banned across the globe for centuries; they are often challenged or banned for religious, political, and/or moral reasons. In the West, book banning is usually attributed to decisions made by schools, school districts, and libraries in response to the expressed outrage of local community groups.

Legal Precedents to Protect a Child’s Right to Read

There are several laws and instances of legal precedents that oppose book banning efforts. A Harvard Law School memorandum addressed to EveryLibrary suggests three key legal arguments to “oppose book bans and support librarians during these challenging times”:

  1. The First Amendment: This amendment protects a person’s right to free speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition without fear of government censorship or retaliation. Subsequent exclusions have been added to this amendment over time to specify some kinds of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment (i.e., slander, “fighting words,” obscenity, or sedition).
  2. Board of Education v. Pico: In 1977, Steven Pico, a seventeen-year-old student at the time, and several of his peers filed a lawsuit to restore banned titles in New York’s Island Trees School District. A group of conservative parents had argued that these books were "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy." Ultimately, the case traveled to the Supreme Court, and in the case of Board of Education v. Pico, the court ruled in favor of Pico, saying that “The First Amendment of the United States Constitution also encompasses a right to receive information. In the school setting, a student’s right to receive available viewpoints cannot be suppressed by school officials merely because they politically disagree with the information.”
  3. Title IX: The United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) explains that Title IX is “a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.” USDOJ goes on to say that “the principal objective of Title IX is to avoid the use of federal money to support sex discrimination in education programs and to provide individual citizens effective protection against those practices.”

Despite these legal precedents, school libraries have experienced a significant uptick in book challenges received and resulting book bans in recent years. In 2022, The American Library Association (ALA) reported that there were 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources and that 1,651 unique titles were targeted between January 1 and August 31 of 2022. ALA reported a 74 percent increase in book challenges from 2021 to 2022. As of today, this is the largest number of book challenges witnessed in United States history. Many of these challenged titles contain the perspectives and experiences of LGBTQIA+ identifying persons as well as minorities.


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Literacy Advocates Fight Back

States are taking steps to combat discriminatory censorship efforts. Recently, Illinois passed a state law that prohibits book bans in public schools and libraries. The New Jersey State Senate has introduced similar legislation (i.e., New Jersey Right to Read Act). These legislative efforts require that a school library adapt ALA’s Bill of Rights, which states that “Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” Libraries who choose not to comply may lose state funding.

Private citizens are weighing in on the issue at school board meetings. Retired Navy Officer Wess Rexrode took the stand in Martin County, Florida, and shared his views on the dangers of book banning, comparing such bans to “religious fascism.” (Rexrode later elaborated on these views.) Students, those most impacted by these bans, are also speaking out. J.J. Holmes, a high school senior from Seminole County, Florida, has cerebral palsy and describes himself as “severely physically disabled.” He drives his power chair with his head, types on an iPad with his nose, and uses his iPad to communicate. Holmes, who prepares his own speeches, shared that he feels “unsafe and unsupported” with the Florida School Board, citing the politics that they’ve chosen to embrace.

Holmes explains to EveryLibrary, “If extremists can ban books about the LGBTQIA+ community, what’s to stop them from banning books about the disability community next?” He believes that book bans have less to do with keeping children safe and more to do with one group’s desire to use censorship as a tool to promote political agendas. Holmes goes on to say that the efforts of Moms for Liberty, a conservative group that is spearheading many of these book banning campaigns, have led to the banning of several books, including And Tango Makes Three. Critics have claimed the book is “obscene” because it features a story about a homosexual partnership. It is worth noting that And Tango Makes Three is a true story about a pair of same-sex penguins that lived in Central Park Zoo and raised the chick together.

Why Are Diverse Books Important for Young Readers?

Some children do not have the opportunity to visit libraries outside of their school day; thus, the school library has the ability to bring titles to such readers. Reading allows young readers to build vocabulary skills, hone critical thinking skills, and build empathy for others. Therefore, it is important for school libraries to curate collections that reflect the demographics and experiences of children in their schools. Each time a young reader selects a title, that reader has the opportunity to experience the world through the lens of their peers.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reports that, based on 2019 data, there are more than eleven million LGBTQIA+ persons living in America. UCLA School of Law Williams Institute reports that 29 percent of these individuals are raising children under the age of eighteen. In 2020, 50 percent of U.S. children were White, non-Hispanic; 26 percent were Hispanic; 14 percent were Black, non-Hispanic; 5 percent were Asian, non-Hispanic; and 5 percent were non-Hispanic “All other races.” These numbers will continue to rise. If anything, more diverse representation is needed in school library collections—not less.


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A Final Note to Would-Be Literacy Advocates

Holmes believes that “No outside groups should have any decision-making power in what we read at school. No one has ever suffered in their lives because they read too many books, no matter the content. Books are meant to make you think. But methodically, book by book, this is being taken away.” To students, he says, “Don’t be afraid to speak up! At school, we’re always told, ‘If you see something, say something.’ Your voice makes a difference. Speak at your local school board meeting. If you don’t like speaking in public, then write a letter to your local newspaper or start a book club and join a group like Campaign for Our Shared Future.”

Now, more than ever, literacy advocates are needed to support school libraries, librarians, and students. Book bans based on discriminatory values roll back progress for social equity initiatives. You don’t need to be a student to be an advocate; you only need to be someone who believes that students’ civil liberties should be protected.

Author’s note: Holmes is a member of Campaign for Our Shared Future’s Student Task Force, a national youth board that focuses on inclusion, access, and meaningful content for every student in public education. High school students interested in literacy advocacy might want to read 7 Tips for Students to Fight Censorship.



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