May administrators remove controversial books from school library shelves?
School officials cannot pull books off library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas in those books. In Board of Education v. Pico, the Supreme Court ruled that school officials in New York violated the First Amendment by removing several books from junior high school library shelves for being too controversial.
The Court said the First Amendment protects students' right to receive information and ideas and that the principal place for such information is the library.
However, in Pico, the Supreme Court also said school officials could remove books from library shelves if they were "pervasively vulgar." The Court noted that its decision did not involve school officials’ control over the curriculum or even the acquisition of books for school libraries.
What types of books are most subject to censorship?
Many books have been subject to censorship, although most are targeted for (a) vulgar or sexually explicit language; (b) "racist" language; (c) gay and lesbian themes; and/or (d) discussions of witchcraft and the occult.
The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom keeps track of efforts to censor books and has published a list, "The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000." Books new and old make up the list, from the 19th-century classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the critically acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to the current-day best-selling Harry Potter series.
Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings receives complaints for a rape scene and for being perceived by some as "anti-white." Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn has been subject to censorship for language deemed demeaning to African-Americans. J.K. Rowling's hugely popular Harry Potter series draws the ire of some who say it celebrates witchcraft.
School districts should develop policies on how to handle challenges to books, and how to ensure that decisions regarding removal of books from the library or the curriculum respect the Constitution and reflect sound educational policy. School officials must also ensure that a book is not removed simply because a concerned parent or special-interest group dislikes its content.