National Book Bans: Attacks on Public School Students’ Right of Access to Speech.

By: Bianca Ferreira

Book bans are rising in the United States as censorship reaches new heights over the past two years. From state lawmakers to parents, those who oppose certain novels and books from appearing in public school curricula continuously find both new and old stories to ban. One of the leading organizations with data on the new wave of book censorship is PEN America, reporting “…for the nine-month period represented [July 1, 2021- March 31, 2022], the Index lists 1,586 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,145 unique book titles,” and that a total of “86 school districts in 26 states” with “a combined enrollment over 2 million students.”[1] Furthermore, NBC News shared data from Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, which “…revealed 75 formal requests by parents or community members to ban books from libraries during the first four months of this school year… in comparison, only one book challenge was filed at those districts during the same time period a year earlier.”[2] The increase in book bans appears to align with the increasing trends of state legislatures and parent groups opposed to curriculum regarding Critical Race Theory and other anti-racist lessons—as discussed later in this post.

Discussions of book bans naturally bring up legal questions about the 1st amendment role in public schools and what free speech and access protections students maintain. Board of Education Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico spoke to 1st amendment school concerns and established that: “…local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs.”[3] Despite the broad discretion set, one must note that Pico stillleaves room for increased protection of students’ access to speech. After all, the majority opinion in Pico (citing Tinker v. Des Moines School District) affirmed that: “…students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”[4] However, “…petitioners rightly possess significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries. But that discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner.”[5] The question today remains unanswered if the standard of “narrowly partisan or political manner” is enough to prevent parents and lawmakers from removing hundreds of books from libraries.[6] While too broad to fit in one blog post, this argument is well-discussed by Ryan L. Schroeder: “The current framework for analyzing the constitutionality of book removals can be easily manipulated and abused. The courts since Pico have incentivized school boards to create pretextual justifications for their removal decisions by failing to thoroughly investigate the record for evidence of viewpoint-based motivations. Thus, school boards are free to remove books, even if the removals are politically motivated.”[7]

As the legal framework for book bans leaves the decision entirely to each county board (with few restrictions), the future of education and access for students to diverse narratives hangs in the balance.[8] Here, it would be amiss and negligent not to recognize that the requests for book bans and censorship are mainly toward LGBTQ+, Black narratives, and anti-racist education literature. Data collected by PEN America shows “…of the titles in the Index, 467 contain protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color (41%), and 247 directly address issues of race and racism (22%); 379 titles (33%) explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes, or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+.”[9] NPR news similarly reported that: “… in 2020, eight out of ten most challenged books covered the LGBTQ+ community.”[10] Alongside the attack on LGTBQ+ narratives, book bans (as mentioned previously) coincide with general attacks on anti-racist education and books that educate on the Black experience in the U.S. For instance, NBC News, in an article where individuals were interviewed in Texas, a parent from the Eanes Independent School District in Austin “…proposed replacing four books about racism, including “How to be Anti-Racist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, with copies of the Bible.”[11]

The warning bells of possible 1st amendment violations are ringing across the U.S. today, directly impacting public school students’ access to speech. Importantly, in response to the ongoing book bans, the Human Rights Campaign reminds us that “the dangerous practice of banning books is not new and has always been used by those who want to stunt progress, sow fear and division, and hide important truths.”[12] Those who oppose the inclusion of Black, Brown, and LGTBQ+ stories in the curriculum have now even gone as far as claiming that such books are sexually explicit and to house them in libraries is to distribute pornographic material.[13] However, this appears simply as a new scare tactic in the tirade of book censorship, as those who claim sexual explicitness can hinge on criminal statutes instead of 1st amendment claims. If we start to consider coming-of-age and romance narratives as (especially in 9-12th curriculums) sexually explicit, are schools then going to ban Romeo and Juliet? The Great Gatsby? The Scarlet Letter? After all, those who support banning books like All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson (and claim it is not for political or viewpoint motivations) surely also support banning Romeo and Juliet… right?[14] Only the future now will tell if either Congress or the courts aim to protect freedom of and access to speech in our public schools.   

[1] Jonathan Friedman, Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights, Pen America, (Last Visited April 15, 2022, 5:00 pm).

[2] Mike Hixenbaugh, Book banning in Texas Schools: Titles Are Pulled Off Library Shelves In Record Numbers, NBC News, (Last Visited April 15, 2022, 5:00 pm).

[3] Board of Education Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982). 

[4] Id at 871 (citing Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 393 U.S. (1969). 

[5] Id at 853. 

[6] Id.

[7] Ryan L. Schroeder, How to Ban a Book and Get Away with It: Educational Suitability and School Board Motivations in Public School Library Book Removals, 107 IOWA L. REV. 363 (2021).

[8] Bill Chappell, A Texas lawmaker Is Targeting 850 Books That He Says Could Make Students Feel Uneasy, NPR (Last Visited April 15, 2022, 5:00 pm).

[9] Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights, PEN America, (Last Visited April 15, 2022, 5:00 pm). 

[10] Rina Torchinsky, These Kids’ Authors are Telling the Stories of Trans Youth Book Bans Won’t Stop Them, NPR (Last Visited April 15, 2022, 5:00 pm).

[11] Mike Hixenbaugh, Book banning in Texas schools: Titles are pulled off library shelves in record numbers, NBC News, (Last Visited April 15, 2022, 5:00 pm). 

[12] Human Rights Campaign Foundation releases list of LGBTQ+ affirming books in the wake of discriminatory book bans across the country, Human Rights Campaign,, (Last Visited April 15, 2022, 5:00 pm).

[13] Elizabeth A. Harris & Alexandra Alter, Book Banning Efforts Surged In 2021 These Titles Were the Most Targeted, The New York Times, (Last Visited April 15, 2022, 5:00 pm); Hannah Natanson, Schools Nationwide Are Quietly Removing Books From Their Libraries, The Washington Post,, (Last Visited April 15, 2022, 5:00 pm).

[14] George M. Johnson, All Boys Aren’t Blue, (2021).

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