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History of Censorship
Most attempted censorship in the United States today focuses on books for children and youth. Those calling for the censorship are largely parents and community members. The usual cause of the censorship has to do with moral values. These three things -- the censors, their targets, and their reasons -- have changed greatly in our country's history, but some of the founding ideas and legal precedents that protect us today come from those unfamiliar foundations.

Seeds of Freedom
Government censorship in the American colonies was widespread. The main target of the censorship was political, not moral. This suppression was almost total and unchecked until the 1720s. During this decade, more and more people were printing without the approval of the government, and the government mostly turned a blind eye. Popular sentiment supporting a free press grew.

1733 - A court in New York found John Peter Zenger not guilty after he published satire of the government, effectively setting the legal precedent for the free press.

Declaration of Independence

Alien & Sedition Act

1821 - Fanny Hill is banned for obscenity.

1835 - President Jackson recommends that publications that might incite the slaves to riot be censored in the south. The bill is subsequently defeated in Congress.

1873 - Illegal to transport obscene material

"The librarian who would allow an immoral novel in his library for circulation would be as culpable as the manager of a picture gallery who should have an indecent picture on his walls" 1870s - William Frederick Poole, later president of the ALA

"Librarians then generally conceived their mission to be 'the elevation of taste and the development of skills" [11, p. 283] along with "improving manners, and teaching virtue and good citizenship' [12, p. 315]." (Doyle).

Supreme Court -- Lady Chatterley's Lover

WWI - Libraries pulled German-language books and anti-war books.

1920s/30s - Librarians begin to value freedom of ideas in libraries

1939 - Library Bill of Rights

1953 - ALA publishes Freedom to Read.

1957 - Roth v. United States

1963 - Fanny Hill is republished and banned again. In 1966, the Supreme Court ruled that it did not meet the Roth criteria for obscenity because it could not be proven that the book had no redeeming social value.

1960s/70s - Social Responsibility Movement

1982 - Board of Education, Island Trees School District v. Pico

Censorship in that Past... Right?

Book banning, book burning, and protests over books are all in the past, right? Sorry to disappoint, but challenges of materials happen all too often in the US each year. Here are definitions of each, followed by some examples:

Banning Books
defined: when a particular title is removed from a library system as a matter of policy.

Burning Books (or other methods of targeted destruction)
defined: when a book or set of books is burned intentionally, as a political and symbolic act.
  • Alamogordo, NM had a church publicly burned books from the Harry Potter series.
  • San Francisco, CA Public Library had their books on homosexuality slashed.
  • Gainesville, FL had a church burn the Quran, despite pleas from the Department of Defense not to.

defined: when a title or group of titles is challenged by a group or individual, where the challenger is ultimately hoping to restrict access to the title in question. Protests can take many forms.
  • Amazon hosted a book about pedophilia that came under intense scrutiny and nearly national protest. That book was eventually removed from sale.
  • The Bureau of Prisons removed books from chapels that were not on the list of approved reading- this action was actually under protest by members of the House of Representatives.
  • Several parent-based or conservative based webpages protest the ALA's Freedom to Read values.
  • The Parents Protecting the Minds of Children organization has an entire website encouraging parents to protests books.


A Chronology of Censorship in America. (1930). Congressional Digest, 9(2), 35–37.

Doyle, T. (2001). A Utilitarian Case for Intellectual Freedom in Libraries. Library Quarterly, 71(1), 44.