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Ink Under Siege. The Ongoing Battle Against Book Banning in the United States

In the land of the free, where diversity and freedom of expression are cherished values, a shadow looms over the literary landscape—the contentious issue of book banning. While banning books might seem like a relic of a bygone era, books continue to face challenges and censorship. This creates sparking debates on the boundaries of free expression, education, and power dynamics within society. This short exploration delves into the United States’ complex terrain of book banning, examining recent legislation, its implications, and the voices that advocate for intellectual freedom.

Book banning, a practice that involves the removal of books from libraries, schools, or curricula, has a deep-rooted history in the United States. This nation, known for its commitment to freedom and diversity, has seen numerous classics and contemporary works face scrutiny, challenges, and censorship due to their perceived controversial content. The reasons for these challenges often revolve around concerns about offensive language, sexual content, religious viewpoints, or political ideologies. Titles such as 1984, The Catcher in Rye, Slaughterhouse-Five, To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, The Handmaid’s Tale, or the Harry Potter series, which readers may have encountered on their required reading lists or banned book lists, have all been subject to such scrutiny.


In 1982, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the first—and still precedent-setting—case (Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 et al. v. Pico, by his next friend Pico, et al., 457 U.S. 853 (1982)) in which a NY-based Long Island school wanted to remove some books from its shelves because they were, in its view, anti-American, anti-Christian or anti-Semitic. The SCOTUS ruled that school officials could not restrict access to books solely based on their content. This means that boards of education cannot remove books from the shelves of libraries simply because they don’t like the ideas in the books. Consequently, the removal must be based on a genuine educational appropriateness ground or a prohibition of obscenity, so, legally, a ban is not justified if it is based on a subjective view of an idea, ideology, or content. This is because the right to information of those who wish to access books includes the desire for a diverse curriculum, which can only be achieved if it contains different ideas and views. However, the main problem is that forty-two years have passed since the decision, and the cultural and educational environment has completely changed. On the other hand, the judgment itself has been criticized for its imprecise wording, which, according to critics, leaves too much room for divergent state practices.

Recently, the issue has gained renewed attention as lawmakers across the country have proposed and enacted legislation regarding the selection of books in libraries (e.g. (UT HB0029, OR SB1583, KS SB358, VA SB235, all from 2024). In some cases, these measures aim to restrict access to certain materials, while in others, they seek to provide more transparency and accountability in the book selection process. A typical example is Oregon, where, according to the state library, 70% of the books challenged in 2023 were about or by people of color, LGBTQ+ people, women, people with disabilities, or other underrepresented, marginalized, or voiceless groups.

One such example is the introduction of the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act in multiple states. This type of legislative act requires public libraries to establish review boards composed of parents with the authority to remove materials they deem inappropriate for minors. Proponents argue that this gives parents a voice in shaping the reading materials available to their children. However, critics warn that it undermines librarians’ professional judgment and threatens intellectual freedom.

In recent years, a disturbing surge in book-banning incidents has occurred. According to statistics from the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, a staggering 4,240 titles were challenged for banning in 1,247 cases in 2023. This marked a 65% increase not only from the previous year but also nearly 20 times more than the average of 273 titles per year between 2001 and 2020. What’s more, the number of complainants or groups calling for books to be banned is negligible compared to the total population. In response to this alarming trend, in 2024, even Florida passed legislation (FL HB1285) allowing childless citizens to challenge up to one book per month (there is still no limit for parents).

The repercussions of book banning extend far beyond removing specific titles from shelves. Censorship stifles creativity, limits exposure to diverse perspectives, and impedes critical thinking. As Judy Blume noted, „It’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship.”


Banning books is about depriving individuals of the opportunity to engage with challenging ideas, confront uncomfortable truths, and expand their understanding of the world. We risk perpetuating ignorance and intolerance by restricting access to certain materials rather than fostering a culture of curiosity and empathy. In the face of censorship, some voices champion the cause of intellectual freedom and the right to access information. Richard Ovenden eloquently stated, „Libraries and archives help root societies in their cultural and historical identities by preserving the written record of those societies. (…) They can help societies to understand their place in the world and to come to terms with the past, especially when the past has been difficult.” These words encapsulate the essence of the debate surrounding book banning—the fundamental right to access and engage with diverse perspectives, even those that may challenge or discomfort us.

In a democratic society that values freedom of speech, the question of who decides what we read is fundamental. While concerns about age-appropriate content and community standards are valid, the solution lies not in censorship but in fostering open dialogue, promoting media literacy, and encouraging a robust exchange of ideas.

Edward Hampshire‘s question („What’s burned, won’t be missed?”), will remain valid for a long time. In the culture war raging in the United States of America, it seems clear that a large part of the challenges would fail even the vaguely defined Pico test: most of the books that are planned to be banned are related to race, gender, and sexuality, so there are subjective views behind the removals, not clear educational goals. Although the Supreme Court of the United States has, in the view of many, drifted too far from the legal arena into the political arena, it may be time for another certiorari-type decision to help the states’ diverse attempts in the field.

The stakes are high, and the voices are many. Yet, at its core, this debate is about more than just the books—it is about the fundamental values defining a society. As guardians of intellectual freedom, we must defend the right to access information, letting readers engage with diverse perspectives. In doing so, we preserve not only the sanctity of ideas but also the very essence of democracy itself. We shouldn’t forget that everything we burn might be helpful in the future.

Gergely Gosztonyi is a habil Associate Professor at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), Faculty of Law. His research interests include global regulation of social media, censorship, deepfake, alternative media, and intermediaries’ liability. He has been an expert for the Council of Europe, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority, and the National Talent Centre. He is an editor of several law journals and has published over 170 articles in Hungarian and international law journals.

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