U.S. parents send their children to public schools to receive an education and to learn the fundamental values on which their democratic society is based. Conflict ensues when parents believe that certain schoolbooks contain material that is objectionable on political, moral, or religious grounds and should be banned in order to protect their children from exposure to allegedly harmful ideas. In some instances school boards have responded by physically removing books from school library shelves. In general, advocates of book banning maintain that censorship is warranted to redress social ills, whereas critics believe that freedom of speech is more important and useful to society than imposing values through censorship.
Book banning as a way to remedy social problems was first tested by the Supreme Court in Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 102 S. Ct. 2799, 73 L. Ed. 2d 435 (1982). In Pico, parents objected to nine books in the high school library, most of which were subsequently removed by the school board. The nine books were Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris; Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas; Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes; Laughing Boy, by Oliver LaFarge; Black Boy, by Richard Wright; A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, by Alice Childress; Soul on Ice, by ELDRIDGE CLEAVER; and Go Ask Alice, by an anonymous author.
Pico debated the authority of local school boards to censor material in the interest of protecting students. The case reached the Supreme Court because lower courts were unable to devise standards for testing the constitutionality of book removal. The Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for public school boards to abridge students' First Amendment rights by banning books. Although school boards have the power to determine which books should sit on library shelves, they do not have the authority to censor.
Books published by commercial presses for sale to the general public sometimes meet with harsh condemnation and subsequent action that could be tantamount to censorship. In November 1990, Simon and Schuster canceled its contract with author Bret E. Ellis to publish his novel American Psycho, citing the work's graphic violence and sexual brutality. The National Writers Union decried the cancellation as contrary to free speech and artistic expression and as censorship. The publishing house defended its editorial judgment by claiming it did not want to put its imprint on a book of questionable taste and value. Vintage Books, a division of Random House, soon acquired the novel, and published it in March 1991.
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