Book Banning Analysis

At Issue

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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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Categories of Book Banning

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The primary reasons behind book banning seem to fall into four categories, according to Noble: (1) The book is deemed to be obscene. (2) The book promotes secular humanism or is antireligion. (3) Self-censorship in the publishing business or government. (4) Subordination of individuals belonging to a particular racial or sexual group. Examples of each category are presented in the next section, followed by discussion of the ethical implications of book banning and censorship.


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The first antiobscenity law passed in the United States was in 1712 by the colony of Massachusetts. The “composing, writing, printing, or publishing of any filthy, obscene, or profane song, pamphlet, libel or mock sermon” was prohibited. The first obscenity case in America occurred in 1821 in Massachusetts, when Peter Holmes was found guilty for publishing and circulating a “lewd and obscene” book, John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. The federal government effected its first antiobscenity statute in 1842, and in 1865 Congress passed a law prohibiting the sending of obscene materials by mail.

The modern era of book censorship and book banning commenced after the Civil War, a period of urban upheaval, rootlessness, loosening of moral controls, and widespread circulation of graphic erotica. The most notable milestones of this era were the passage of the Comstock Act by Congress in 1873 and the passage of antiobscenity legislation by most states by 1900. The Comstock Act prohibited using the mails to send any “obscene, lewd, or lascivious, indecent, filthy or vile book” through the mails and was responsible for the seizure and destruction of thousands of tons of books and court prosecutions.

The 1920’s marked the end of an era for the book banners. The liberalizing influences of 1920’s American culture resulted in a change in attitudes and values among the population and judiciary toward what had been formerly...

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Secular Humanism and Anti-Religionism

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Secular humanism has been characterized by an attorney as “a godless religion which rejects any notion of the supernatural or a divine purpose for the world” and which also “rejects any objective or absolute moral standards and embraces a subjective ‘anything goes’ approach to morals based on personal needs and desires.” According to plaintiffs, secular humanism has been advocated in public school textbooks. Since secular humanism is a religion, it violates the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, and therefore the books should be banned. Plaintiffs were upheld in a court case in 1987, but this decision was reversed by the Court of Appeals.

A much broader and more widespread attack on school textbooks has been instituted by various watchdog groups that believe that a number of textbooks are antireligious. For example, Beverly LaHay of Concerned Women for America has expressed the necessity “to preserve, protect, and promote traditional and Judeo-Christian values through education, legal defense. . . . The sad fact is that educational systems in most American schools has already removed any reference to God or teaching of Judeo-Christian values that is the most important information a child can learn.” In a famous case, LaHay’s group supported seven families in Hawkins County, Tennessee, who were attempting to ban a series of textbooks. Purportedly, the books contained passages about witchcraft, astrology, pacifism, feminism, and evolution, while ignoring religion and creationism.

The trial judge agreed that the textbooks interfered with the parents’ free exercise of religion, that the children were exposed to offensive religious beliefs that interfered with practice of their own religion and that put Tennessee in the position of favoring one religion over another. Ten months later, however, the Court Of Appeals reversed this decision, stating that the Constitution was not violated and that exposure to offensive religious beliefs is not identical to requiring them to be accepted.

Self-Censorship by Publishers and Government

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

William Noble (1990) observed that the absorption of many independent publishing houses into conglomerates has produced more reluctance to stir up controversy or to offend, resulting in self-censorship of what is published. Unlike the previously discussed situations, the publisher may be the only one who knows what has happened.

Self-censorship can take several forms. Probably the mildest form occurs when an author is asked (not ordered) to change or eliminate some text. For example, Judy Blume removed text at her publisher’s request in her book Tiger Eyes: “There was just one line in the book [about masturbation], but my publishers said it would make the book controversial and limit the book’s audience. I took it out but I wish I hadn’t.”

Similar to Judy Blume’s encounter with self-censorship is bowdlerism, named for Thomas Bowdler, a nineteenth century British physician who excised text from Shakespeare’s plays. These “bowdlerized” versions can still be found in schools, and in 1980 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published an edition of Romeo and Juliet minus about ten percent of the text. About two-thirds of the omitted passages had sexual connotations.

A more severe form of self-censorship is to fail to publish a book or to withdraw it from publication under pressure once it has been published. Deborah Davis’ unflattering 1980 biography of Katharine Graham, owner of The Washington Post,...

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Racial and Sexual Subordination

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) was considered to be racist by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who sought to have it banned from New York City Schools in 1957. The book was said to demean African Americans but not whites, resulting in a loss of respect by the reader for African Americans. The book continues to be attacked, and in 1984 an African American alderman in Illinois did succeed in having the book removed from a high school reading list for use of offensive language. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) was branded as racist by the Toronto School Board for using the term “nigger” and for demeaning African Americans and was banned from schools.

Radical feminist writer Andrea Dworkin and lawyer Catharine A. MacKinnon attempted to regulate pornographic literature on the grounds that it discriminated against women and therefore was under the jurisdiction of civil rights laws. According to Dworkin, pornography produced “bigotry and hostility and aggression toward all women,” and promoted the idea that “the hurting of women is . . . basic to the sexual pleasure of men.” Legislation intended to allow a woman who perceived herself to be hurt by pornography to sue the bookstore owner for civil damage and have the materials banned was proposed in three cities but was never put into law. In Indianapolis, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court’s ruling that “to deny free speech in order to engineer social change in the name of accomplishing a greater good for one sector of our society erodes the freedoms of all and, as such, threatens tyranny and injustice for those subjected to the rule of such laws.”

Ethical Issues

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The preceding presentation of the history of book banning was intended to bring into focus the issues and points of view related to book banning and censorship. It is apparent that book banning and censorship are more of a dilemma than a quandary. That is, various ethically defensible positions exist.

The Case for No Censorship or Book Banning

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Freedom of expression is a cherished right that people are guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Some people have interpreted the First Amendment literally to mean that book banning or censorship is not justifiable or permissible under any circumstances. The late Supreme Court justices William O. Douglas and Hugo Black and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated that the First Amendment protected all publications, without qualification, against either civil or criminal regulation at any level of government. Douglas tolerated “no exceptions . . . not even for obscenity.” To Douglas, the First Amendment can have meaning and significance only if it allows protests even against the moral code that is the standard in the community. The ACLU declared that all published material is protected by the First Amendment unless it creates a “clear and present danger” of causing antisocial behavior.

George Elliot (1965) stated the case for removing all censorship for pornography: (1) No law can be stated clearly enough to guide unequivocally those who decide censorship cases. The ACLU has called such laws “vague and unworkable.” The Supreme Court has for years grappled with defining obscenity and pornography with considerable disagreement among justices and changes in definition over the years. (2) There is no clear and unequivocal evidence that in fact pornography does severely injure many people, even adolescents. (3) The less power government has the better. As Justice Hugo Black wrote in 1966: “Criminal punishment by government, although universally recognized, is an exercise of one of government’s most awesome and dangerous powers. Consequently, wise and good governments make all possible efforts to hedge this dangerous power by restricting it within easily identifiable boundaries.”

The essence of the belief that reading materials should not be banned under any circumstance rests on the assumption that the citizenry has free will and is intelligent. Therefore, each citizen is free and able to reject material that he or she finds personally offensive, but no person has the right to define what is personally offensive for anyone else or to limit anyone else’s access to that material. To do so is, to paraphrase the words of federal judge Sarah Backer, to erode freedom for the entire citizenry and threaten tyranny and injustice for those at whom the laws are directed.

The Case for Censorship

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

An editorial in the April 2, 1966, issue of The New Republic commented on Justice Douglas’ position: “It would be nice if we could have a society in which nothing that others sold or displayed made anyone fear for the future of his children. But we are not that society, and it is hard to protect Mishkin’s [a convicted pornographer] freedom to make a profit any way he likes, when his particular way is a stench in the nostrils of his community, even though the community would perhaps be better advised to ignore him.” The editorial advocated permitting Mishkin to cater to those who seek his product but not allowing him to display it in public.

This editorial represents the stance of most of the...

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(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Demac, Donna A. Liberty Denied. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990. An excellent discussion of the different kinds of censorship and book banning and their effect on the authors and on society. Takes a strong anti-censorship position.

Haight, Anne Lyon, and Chandler B. Grannis. Banned Books. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1978. A comprehensive list of book banning and related incidents through the years and in various countries.

McClellan, Grant S., ed. Censorship in the United States. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1967. An excellent collection of magazine and newspaper articles that argue the pros and cons of censorship.

Noble, William. Bookbanning in America. Middlebury, Vt.: Paul S. Erickson, 1990. Highly recommended. A lively, very readable, thorough, and thoughtful discussion of the various forms of censorship. Takes a strong anticensorship position.

Rauch, Jonathan. Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. A leisurely and very personal but insightful essay on the evils of censorship.

Woods, L. B. A Decade of Censorship in America: The Threat to Classrooms and Libraries, 1966-1975. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1979. A detailed and thorough presentation of the censorship wars as fought in public schools and libraries. Presents both pro- and anticensorship points of view.