Censorship vs. Free Expression: The Controversy Surrounding Book Banning

Books hold power through the knowledge and ideas they contain. However, throughout history, people have tried to limit access to certain books by banning or censoring them. The practice of book banning still happens today and leads to heated debates about censorship, free speech, and the role of books in society. This article looks at the complicated history and current situation around banning books. It explores why books get banned, how banning books impacts free expression and access to information, and the arguments on both sides of this ongoing issue. We’ll examine well-known cases, history, and the bigger effects of limiting written works.

The act of prohibiting or censoring books has been a practice observed for thousands of years, dating back to the earliest civilizations known to humanity. In China, more than 2,000 years ago, book burning was utilized as a means of control. Throughout history, religious and political authorities have banned texts they deemed heretical or threatening. During the early century, the Catholic Church established its Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which listed books. Furthermore, public and school libraries have a standing tradition of banning books due to political, social, or moral concerns. In the past, books like James Joyce’s Ulysses and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath were banned in the United States for supposedly containing inappropriate sexual content or expressing controversial political and religious viewpoints. Despite changing perspectives on censorship throughout time, calls to ban books persist from both religious and non-religious groups aiming to restrict access to works they perceive as objectionable or dangerous. This intricate history highlights a conflict between promoting expression through literature and attempting to suppress ideas through censorship.

Throughout history, books have been banned or censored for a variety of reasons by different groups and authorities. Some common justifications given for book banning include offensive content, political ideologies, and religious objections. Sexually explicit material is one prevalent reason cited for banning books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer, which have faced censorship for their graphic language and sexual descriptions. Books promoting controversial political perspectives, like The Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf, have also been suppressed at various times. Additionally, religious objections have led to bans on books deemed blasphemous or heretical, with famous examples including The Satanic Verses which drew condemnation from some Islamic leaders and The Da Vinci Code which was criticized by Christian groups. While reasons vary, book banning is often an attempt to silence ideas and prevent the spread of information seen as immoral, dangerous, or subversive to certain religions, governments, or social norms.

Book banning can have significant consequences on society and culture beyond limiting access to certain books. By restricting certain ideas, perspectives, and stories, book banning limits freedom of expression. When governments or institutions ban books, it sends the message that only certain types of speech are permitted while others are forbidden. This sets a precedent that can normalize censorship and erode open dialogue. Banning books also influences cultural norms and public discourse by determining which voices and narratives are validated. Excluding certain groups’ stories from schools and libraries marginalizes those groups in society. On the other hand, allowing a diversity of books, even controversial ones, promotes inclusivity, expands society’s moral imagination, and leads to more thoughtful debates on complex issues. Though book banning aims to protect, its broader effects silence opposition, dominate cultural narratives and weaken democracy.

No book icons set. Vector illustration. Reading of books is prohibited
No book icons set. Vector illustration. Reading of books is prohibited. Image by Adobe Stock.

Recent years have seen intense book-banning controversies as certain groups challenge books that contain alleged objectionable content. In 2021, over 1,500 book bans were instituted across 26 states, with race and LGBTQ+ themes as common reasons for challenges. For example, the graphic novel Gender Queer, which contains LGBTQ+ themes, has frequently been banned from school libraries. Proponents of bans argue these books are inappropriate for children and violate community standards. Opponents contend that banning books marginalizes minority voices, infringes on free speech, and prevents students from learning about diverse viewpoints. Another flashpoint has been bans on teaching critical race theory, with opponents claiming CRT books indoctrinate guilt around race. However, bans on teaching CRT have been criticized for whitewashing history and making it harder to discuss racism. These cases illustrate the charged debate around which ideas children should encounter in schools. While book banning seeks to protect, it can also interfere with education and diversity.

The issue of book banning is a complex debate rooted in concerns about protecting children versus upholding free speech. As this article has explored, book banning has a long history, from banning texts for heretical or sexual content to more recent efforts to remove books addressing race, gender, and sexuality. Cases of banning books, especially in schools, remain common and contentious. While proponents aim to shield children from offensive content, opponents see book banning as censorship that marginalizes minority voices. There are persuasive concerns on both sides, and reasonable people can disagree on where to draw the line. However, book banning risks setting dangerous precedents around limiting expression and representation. As society continues grappling with diverse ideas of morality and identity, we must thoughtfully navigate how to balance age-appropriate content with inclusive education and intellectual freedom.


Read more stories on the Zealousness blog Numbered lists stories – iN Education Inc. (ineducationonline.org).


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  5. Howard, T. C., Sheehan, F., Pendharkar, E., & Schwartz, S. (2023, July 24). Whose Life Experiences Are Being Disappeared by Book Banning? (Opinion). Education Week. Retrieved September 10, 2023, from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-whose-life-experiences-are-being-disappeared-by-book-banning/2023/07
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