The War on Books: Literary Censorship in Schools

The War on Books: Literacy Censorship in Schools
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Book banning is making headlines across the country as more books are cut from schools’ library shelves. The United States recorded a record-breaking number of attempted book bans in 2023, a 65% increase in challenges to unique titles compared to 2022.1[1]Book Ban Data, AM. LIBR. ASSOC. (Mar. 20, 2023), The American Library Association documented 4,240 unique book titles targeted for censorship in 2023.2[2]Id. The states that have been at the forefront of these bans are Texas, Florida, Missouri, and Utah.3[3]PEN America Index of School Book Bans – Fall 2022, PEN AM.,

The most commonly banned books are written by people of color and contain themes related to race or racism.4[4]Id. This has caused controversy as fewer minority-written books featuring people of color are available on schools’ library shelves. This article will explore the legality of these bans, proposed legislation to combat these bans, and the potential impact on young readers.

Legal Precedent for Book Bans
In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the question of censorship in school libraries in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico.5[5]Bd. of Educ. v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982). In this case, the Board of Education of the Island Trees Union Free School District in New York appointed four school district parents to review a list of several allegedly “anti-American” books including The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas.6[6]Michael Winerip, L.I. School Board Ends its Fight to Ban Books, THE NEW YORK TIMES (Jan. 31, 1983),,on%20Ice%2C”%20by%20Eldridge. These parents evaluated whether the books should be banned from the school district.7[7]Bd. of Educ., 457 U.S. at 857. Upon receiving the committee’s evaluation, the Board decided to remove nine books, including the three above, from its schools’ libraries.8[8]Id. at 858. Five Island Trees students brought an action against the Board, claiming the removal of the books denied them their First Amendment rights.9[9]Id. at 859.

The Court struggled to reach a decision, resulting in a holding that precluded the school board from being “entitled to a judgement as a matter of law.”10[10]Id. at 875. The Court held that the evidence created a genuine issue of material fact of the school board’s justifications for its removal decision.11[11]Id. The Court explained that “school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”12[12]Id. at 872. The Court reasoned that while the school board did possess significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries, that discretion could not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner.13[13]Id. at 870. If the school board intended to deny students access to ideas it disagreed with by removing books, and if this intent proved to be the decisive factor in the school board’s decision, then the school board exercised its discretion in violation of the Constitution.14[14]Id. at 871. Additionally, the Court limited the decision “only [to] the discretion to remove books.”15[15]Id. at 871-72.

In 2023, Florida parents, authors, Penguin Random House and PEN America, a group that advocates to protect free expression worldwide, collectively sued the Escambia, Florida, school district over its book bans.16[16]PEN America v. Escambia County School District, PEN AM. (Jan. 31, 2024), The lawsuit challenged the restriction of books from school libraries, books that included The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, claiming the restrictions are unconstitutional and unlawful censorship.17[17]Id. The majority of the books targeted for removal addressed themes of race or gender identity.18[18]Id. In January 2024, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida denied the school district’s attempts to dismiss the case, rejecting the school district’s claims that “the book removals constituted government speech not subject to First Amendment scrutiny.”19[19]Id.

More recently in June 2024, authors, publishing houses, and advocacy groups all signed a PEN America letter protesting South Carolina’s recent legislation that could lead to the removal of critically acclaimed books in public schools simply for including a sexual reference.20[20]Andrew Albanese, Authors, Publishers Sign PEN America Letter Protesting New South Carolina School Book Rules, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (June 4, 2024), The letter argues the South Carolina legislation threatens free expression and infringes on students’ First Amendment rights.21[21]Id. Additionally, three Florida parents filed a federal lawsuit on June 6, 2024, challenging a Florida law that increased scrutiny of library books.22[22]Dara Kam, Florida parents file federal lawsuit over state’s new book banning policy, ORLANDO WEEKLY (June 7, 2024), The Florida parents claim the law violates the First Amendment by denying parents access to the book review process based on their viewpoint.23[23]Id.

Pending Legislation to Address Book Bans
Despite legal precedent against censorship, schools continue to face demands to remove books from their library shelves. School administrators often struggle to manage these demands because many schools have yet to establish policies for book challenges.24[24]Emma Hulse, NY Schools Are Banning Books. Here’s What You Can Do About It, N.Y. C.L. UNION (Sept. 19, 2023),,include%20LGBTQIA%2B%20characters%20or%20themes. This uncertainty has pushed both federal and state legislators to step in and ensure the preservation of First Amendment rights for young readers.

Congressman Maxwell Frost from Florida, for example, introduced the federal Fight Book Bans Act in 2023.25[25]ACLU Supports Bill to Block Book Bans, AMERICAN C.L. UNION (Feb. 8, 2024),,to%20co%2Dsponsor%20the%20bill. The act aims to fight censorship by allowing the U.S. Department of Education to allocate grants to school districts to cover expenses incurred from challenging book bans.26[26]Id. Florida consistently ranks at the top of the list of states with the most challenges to books, making Representative Frost’s proposed legislation a potential key to reducing book censorship.27[27]Press Release, Maxwell A. Frost, As Florida Leads Nation in Book Bans, Congressman Maxwell Frost Introduces Bill to Fight Bans and Support Educators (Dec. 5, 2023),“Book%20bans%20in%20Florida%20and,%2C”%20said%20Congressman%20Maxwell%20Frost; see also Tovia Smith, Schools book bans show no signs of slowing, new PEN America report finds, NPR (Sept. 21, 2023), The proposed bill would provide additional resources to alleviate some of the burden felt by school personnel to confront the influx of demands for book censorship.28[28]Id. As of April 2024, the Fight Book Bans Act awaits further action in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.29[29]Fight Book Bans Act, H.R. 6592, 118th Cong. (2024).

At the state level, the New York State Senate is considering the Freedom to Read Act which would “require the commissioner of education and school library systems to develop policies to ensure that school libraries and library staff are empowered to curate and develop collections that provide students with access to the widest array of developmentally appropriate materials.”30[30]S. 6350B, 2024 Reg. Sess. (N.Y. 2023). The potential legislation allows for the creation of structured policies to assist librarians in navigating this politically charged frontier with added consistency and commitment to students.31[31]Id.

Despite these steps, further action on both the state and federal level is needed to protect diversity in schools’ libraries. Without clear policies in place to combat book censorship, young readers’ learning is limited and subject to political discretion.

The Future of Book Bans
Mounting pressure from vocal citizens and persistent national groups has created a difficult climate for schools to navigate. Schools are more vulnerable than ever, as they are still reeling from the impact of current teacher shortages and ongoing recovery from COVID-19 pandemic learning delays – book bans would likely further impact public education.32[32]See Kayla Jimenez, ‘Book-banning crusade’ across the U.S.: What does it cost American taxpayers?, USA TODAY (Nov. 10, 2023), The precarious situation many schools find themselves in has led school administrators to err on the side of caution when it comes to book censorship.33[33]Id. Beloved books like To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and The Catcher in the Rye have all been banned in some states.34[34]Scott A. Leadingham, 15 of the Most Famous Banned Books in US History, FREEDOM FORUM, Without adequate policies or legislation in place, the presence of diverse and other important voices in school libraries is in danger of being eliminated.

Written by: Sydney Villanueva

Sydney is a 2026 J.D. Candidate at Brooklyn Law School

[1] Book Ban Data, AM. LIBR. ASSOC. (Mar. 20, 2023),
[2] Id.
[3] PEN America Index of School Book Bans – Fall 2022, PEN AM.,
[4] Id.
[5] Bd. of Educ. v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982).
[6] Michael Winerip, L.I. School Board Ends its Fight to Ban Books, The New York Times (Jan. 31, 1983),,on%20Ice%2C”%20by%20Eldridge.
[7] Bd. of Educ., 457 U.S. at 857.
[8] Id. at 858
[9] Id. at 859.
[10] Id. at 875.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at 872.
[13] Id. at 870.
[14] Id. at 871.
[15] Id. at 871-72.
[16] PEN America v. Escambia County School District, PEN Am. (Jan. 31, 2024),
[17] Id.
[18] Id.
[19] Id.
[20] Andrew Albanese, Authors, Publishers Sign PEN America Letter Protesting New South Carolina School Book Rules, Publishers weekly (June 4, 2024),
[21] Id.
[22] Dara Kam, Florida parents file federal lawsuit over state’s new book banning policy, Orlando weekly (June 7, 2024),
[23] Id.
[24] Emma Hulse, NY Schools Are Banning Books. Here’s What You Can Do About It, N.Y. C.L. Union (Sept. 19, 2023),,include%20LGBTQIA%2B%20characters%20or%20themes.
[25] ACLU Supports Bill to Block Book Bans, American C.L. Union (Feb. 8, 2024),,to%20co%2Dsponsor%20the%20bill.
[26] Id.
[27] Press Release, Maxwell A. Frost, As Florida Leads Nation in Book Bans, Congressman Maxwell Frost Introduces Bill to Fight Bans and Support Educators (Dec. 5, 2023),“Book%20bans%20in%20Florida%20and,%2C”%20said%20Congressman%20Maxwell%20Frost; see also Tovia Smith, Schools book bans show no signs of slowing, new PEN America report finds, NPR (Sept. 21, 2023),
[28] Id.
[29] Fight Book Bans Act, H.R. 6592, 118th Cong. (2024). 
[30] S. 6350B, 2024 Reg. Sess. (N.Y. 2023).
[31] Id.
[32] See Kayla Jimenez, ‘Book-banning crusade’ across the U.S.: What does it cost American taxpayers?, USA Today (Nov. 10, 2023),
[33] Id.
[34] Scott A. Leadingham, 15 of the Most Famous Banned Books in US History, Freedom Forum,

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