Book banning is an ancient activity practiced throughout history and the world (although this review will focus on book banning in the United States). The first book banning occurred in Western civilization in 387 b.c.e., when Plato recommended that Homer be expurgated for immature readers. Four hundred years later, the Roman emperor Caligula tried to ban Homer’s Odyssey because he feared that the book’s strong theme of freedom and liberty would arouse the citizenry against his autocratic rule. In 1559, Pope Paul IV issued a list of prohibited books, the Index librorum prohibitorum.
In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution seems unequivocally and absolutely to guarantee freedom of speech, no matter how that speech is expressed, without interference by the government. The First Amendment states in part that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” In fact, however, this freedom is by no means absolute or unfettered. Donna E. Demac (1990) correctly pointed out that the history of freedom of expression in America is a complex mixture of a commitment to personal rights and intolerance of ideas deemed subversive, dissident, or obscene.
Certain books, by the very nature of their subject matter or writing style, will offend the values and attitudes of certain individuals or groups. As Kenneth Donelsen has observed: “Any book or idea or teaching method is potentially...
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