First Amendment topicsAbout the First Amendment
Banned and challenged books: a selected timeline

1873 Comstock Law (Federal Anti-Obscenity Act)
The statute, which updated an 1865 law designed to stop the mailing of obscene materials to soldiers, banned obscene materials from being distributed through the U.S. Postal Service. Among the books that were banned under the law were Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Defoe’s Moll Flanders and some versions of Arabian Nights.

“Whoever, within the United States…shall have in his possession for any such purpose or purposes, an obscene book, pamphlet, print picture, or drawing…of immoral nature shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction thereof in the court of the United States he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary.”
1881 Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
Whitman’s Boston publisher refused to publish the seventh edition of this collection of poetry on the grounds that it was too provocative. Later, Whitman was dismissed from his job at the Department of the Interior because of what was termed immoral poetry.
1930 Voltaire’s Candide
U.S. Customs officials took copies of Candide out of a shipment of books to Harvard because it was considered to be sexually explicit and obscene.
1950s McCarthyism
More than 300 books were banned or burned during Joseph McCarthy’s purging of Communist influences from American society. Lenin’s State and Revolution and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience were among the prohibited works.
1980 Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice
Schools in Midland, Mich., banned the Bard’s play because it was thought to perpetuate Jewish stereotypes.
1989 Grimm’s Little Red Riding Hood
Two California school districts banned the fairy tale because the underage protagonist takes wine to her grandmother.
1993 The Bible
West Shore Schools in Harrisburg, Pa., challenged the Bible, claiming it contained over 300 examples of obscenity, including incest and murder.
1998 Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals allowed Twain’s controversial work to be taught in public schools in Arizona. A black woman had sued to remove the book and a William Faulkner story from the required-reading list at her daughter’s high school. Judge Stephen Reinhardt said that courts do not have the power to “ban books or other literary works from school curricula on the basis of their content.” Twain’s book is often challenged because it is considered racist.

Compiled by First Amendment Center intern Melanie Bengtson.


Banned books
Book censorship
Celebrating the right to read
By Melanie Bengtson ALA kicks off its 25th Annual Banned Books Week, honoring works that have been challenged, questioned, burned or banned. 09.25.06

print this   Print

Last system update: Friday, July 25, 2008 | 02:40:42
About this site
About the First Amendment
About the First Amendment Center
First Amendment programs
State of the First Amendment

First Reports
Supreme Court
First Amendment publications
First Amendment Center history
Freedom Sings™
First Amendment

Congressional Research Service reports
Guest editorials
FOI material
The First Amendment

Lesson plans
Contact us
Privacy statement
Related links