Banned Books: The Politics Behind Censorship

In 1976, a school district in the state of New York removed nine books from its libraries, claiming these books were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy,” and so the district felt it had to remove them to protect the children in its schools from “moral danger.”  This removal sparked a court battle that culminated in a case before the United States Supreme Court in 1982, the last time our highest court looked at the constitutional implications of book banning.  In an opinion written by First Amendment champion Justice Brennan, the Supreme Court concluded:

[L]ocal school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”  Bd. of Educ. v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 863, 872 (1982) (quoting West Virginia Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943).

I wrote about this court case in a previous post, Banning Books That Promote Tolerance?, where I noted that its future is in doubt because it is a 30-year-old plurality decision (which means that a majority of our nine justices at the time could not agree on a single position) that lower courts have chosen to ignore, resulting in greater deference to public school boards and townships that ban books to “protect” children from great works of literature. See ACLU, Inc. v. Miami-Dade County Sch. Bd., 557 F.3d 1177 (11th Cir. 2009).

The 30th Anniversary of Banned Books Week runs from September 30th to October 6th, and I decided to observe it by revisiting one of the nine books at the heart of Board of Educ. v. Pico:  Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel (a classic worth reading), Slaughterhouse-Five.  I became acquainted with Vonnegut’s enigmatic time traveler, Billy Pilgrim, at age twelve at the urging of my father, from whom I inherited my love of books.  The book was 24-years-old then, and now it is nearly two decades older (as am I).

It is fascinating to read books of a bygone era. Vonnegut’s forty-three-year-old masterpiece contains timeless themes, such as its anti-war message, but a small number of lines are less potent today and may lose their meaning for future generations.  For example, after Harrison Starr says that the book about the Second World War might as well be an anti-glacier book rather than an anti-war one, the narrator replies, “What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers.  I believe that, too.”  Four decades later, the analogy between relentless glaciers and endless war is less relevant; glaciers have been on the retreat for years (Hemingway’s snows of Kilimanjaro have declined 80% since 1912), and yet war remains all around us.

Nevertheless, this sobering book’s significance remains intact, and I recommend it to everyone.  Some people may find it difficult to follow Billy Pilgrim as he becomes stuck and unstuck in time, but it is certainly worth the journey.  Yes, there is some profanity, but that’s life and far less offensive that what most kids see on television or hear on the radio these days.  There is nothing in this novel that would warrant its removal from a library shelf or school curriculum, and yet there are those who continue to object to it, with a Missouri school board making headlines last year for deciding that Slaughterhouse-Five was inappropriate for high school students.

Then again, in my opinion, few books contain such obscene content as to warrant censorship.  Some books are not appropriate for the very young, mostly because such young children do not have the conceptual understanding to process such content and not because we should protect them from “moral danger” or certain political or religious viewpoints.  I have always believed that the best way to counter controversial speech is with more speech. Thus, the solution is to talk about why the book is wrong, not to ban it.

Many of our judges in this country do not feel this way, and they will be the ones to decide whether the actions of school boards and townships comply with the law.  We tell ourselves that these courts are apolitical bodies, but that is a fiction.  In the United States, judges are either elected (many state courts) or appointed and confirmed by elected government officials (federal courts).  The judges behind the 11th Circuit opinion (2009) that essentially ignores the Supreme Court’s decision in Pico (as I describe in my earlier post) were appointed by one of the major political parties in the United States (to see who appointed them, see their bios: here & here), while the dissenting opinion comes from an appointee from the other political party (see bio here).

We will be electing our government officials on November 6, 2012, and the next President of the United States will appoint numerous federal appellate and district court judges — the ones who decide, often without review, the vast majority of constitutional rights cases — and likely one or more United States Supreme Court Justices.  These are the judges that could hear the next censorship case, among many other cases related to issues that affect the lives of everyday people.

Your vote matters.  To influence the composition of the courts: (1) register to vote by October 9th; (2) make sure you have proper ID if you live in a state that requires it; and (3) go to the polls in November.


  1. As somebody who votes and yet can never convince herself that she’s not doing something irrational, I’m curious: why do you think our single, individual votes, as opposed to wider political participation (canvassing, donations, being parts of campaigns), matter?

    1. Sometimes it’s hard to see why our individual votes matter, but then there are some elections where it comes down to just a small number of votes (such as Florida in 2000, and the 1996 election for my former representative in the House, Joe Hoeffel, that came down to 84 votes out of 250,000). I’ve canvassed in many elections with the goal of educating the public about issues/candidates and amassing a large enough number of individual votes to win. So, I do think individual votes matter, and I see other efforts (canvassing, donations, being parts of campaigns) as ways of aggregating individual votes. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Like you mentioned, I could never understand the reasoning for banning books, especially with what kids see on TV now a days. Worse yet, what they identify with in music and video games. Books seems so much more tame.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment that the best way to tackle speech we don’t like is with more speech, not by banning or forbidding said speech. Let the people decide what they will and won’t read, not bureaucrats—local or national.

    But do be careful to side to much with one party or another. Both of the major parties have been at the end of censorship in one form or another. Both will claim to be doing it with nobler purposes in mind. And both are doing it for control. That’s why I tend to vote for candidates, not parties.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I agree that knowing a candidate’s political party is of limited value, but when it comes to many issues, it’s unlikely that we will know where a candidate stands (and we’ll know even less about their judicial nominees). In recent years, from my perspective, there is one political party that is more likely to permit censorship (particularly in schools) and another political party that is less likely to do so. Some judges do not fall cleanly along party lines, but I’m seeing less of that on the federal bench these days. It’s sometimes sad to see how predictable it all is. What I want people to realize is that judges are closely connected to politics, and we deserve to know how our elected officials will approach appointments.

    1. @ThreeKingBooks: Your book was banned by the Philadelphia Public Library?! Philadelphia?! I’m trying to decide what message they were trying to send. Typically, I would take that as quite a compliment, although the Philadelphia part kind of surprises me. Shows that we shouldn’t stereotype. But isn’t it great that you can say, “my first novel …”?

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