Poster published by the United States Government Printing Office, 1942
In the United States we often hold up our First Amendment rights as a foundational liberty, something that defines us as a nation. But is the freedom of speech and publication really as secure as we think? Throughout history books, films, plays, newspapers, and other media have been routinely, and legally, banned and censored in the US, and limits on access to information are still prevalent today.
In the early days of the US, the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights weren’t necessarily understood to extend to municipalities and states. It was perfectly legal for all kinds of materials and performances to be banned in individual cities and states. Censorship was also routinely practiced through the mail, and this was enshrined into federal law in 1873 with the passage of the Comstock Law, which banned the circulation of materials deemed obscene or immoral. The city of Boston became so known for its harsh censorship laws that the phrase “banned in Boston” become associated with anything risque, which, as you might imagine, sometimes had the effect of drastically increasing sales elsewhere.
Despite the First Amendment, the federal government has also censored the press at various points in US history, especially during wartime. This censorship was usually political and was related to perceived threats to national security. Antiwar journalists were arrested frequently during World War I and the subsequent Red Scare, and the government censored movie scripts and books during World War II and the early Cold War.
It wasn’t until the 1925 Gitlow v. New York Supreme Court decision that the reach of the Bill of Rights, including the right to freedom of the press, was extended to the states. This was the first major First Amendment case that the American Civil Liberties Union argued before the Supreme Court. Between 1953 and 1969, under the Warren Court, many First Amendment cases were argued which extended the right to freedom of speech and of the press, and limited the ability of any state or city to ban or censor books and other media.
Although we have, over time, solidified the freedom of the press throughout the United States, censorship continues to be practiced in a variety of ways. Contemporary censorship isn’t often enacted by government bodies, but is instead more widely practiced by corporations and non-governmental organizations. Rather than officially banning or censoring materials, we limit their distribution and constrain access.
The most common way that access to books is limited in the United States is through challenges in schools and public libraries. Every year there are hundreds of reports of books being challenged in libraries around the US. Books are challenged for a variety of reasons, including perceived obscenity, inappropriate language, racism, or inappropriateness to a targeted age group. Challenges often happen in isolated circumstances, one parent raising objections to a book in his local library, but sometimes challenges are coordinated nationally or regionally by conservative organizations, especially recently around books that contain content about non-traditional families.
The internet also provides a new avenue for banning and limiting access to information. As recently as 1996 the US Congress attempted to ban “indecent” materials from the Internet with the Communications Decency Act. This act was challenged by the ACLU and struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997, but subsequent laws have limited distribution of and access to internet content in a variety of ways, especially in public libraries. The government isn’t the greatest perpetrator of content restriction on the Internet, though: corporations like Facebook and YouTube have their own obscenity regulations about shared content and these regulations can be even less transparent than those of the government. We’ve also begun to move into an environment where we no longer own our digital content, but only lease files that are hosted by corporations and publishers. This makes it much easier for content to be restricted or unpublished, even after we’ve “purchased” it.
Anytime access to books, articles, music, movies, and other media are restricted, whether by the government or by Amazon, we lose out. Decisions that should be made by individuals about what we want to read, hear, or see are taken out of our hands. Next week is Banned Books Week in the US, a time for us to draw attention to the ways that information is restricted and censored, even today. We hope you’ll join us to learn more about the freedom to read.
Mapping Censorship—A geographic visualization of book challenges documented by the American Library Association and the Kids’ Right to Read Project.
Banned Books that Shaped America—A list of books from the Library of Congress exhibit that have had a profound effect on American life.
Explore Banned Books on Google Books
Banned in the U.S.A.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries [ebook available to SSU only]
From the Palmer Raid to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America by Christopher Finan [ebook available to SSU only]