Each year, the American Library Association recognizes Banned Books Week, a time to celebrate the “freedom to read” by highlighting books targeted for censorship, particularly in schools. Given that writing is a form of speech, the topic got me thinking about the larger boundaries of free speech in K-12 educational settings. In this blog, I shed light on two decisive court cases and share strategies educators and writers can use when their texts or content are challenged.
The legal precedent
Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1965) was a landmark free speech case centered on a group of students (including four from the Tinker family) who planned to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school. After catching wind of the plan, the district threatened students with suspension if they followed through. The students wore the armbands anyways, and when they were suspended, the parents sued. While a district court ruled in favor of the school, the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court. The high court overturned the decision, ruling that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
In considering the armband as a form of speech, Tinker v. Des Moines established a strong litmus test for curtailing students’ First Amendment rights: the extent to which free expression disrupts the school’s educational mission. By deciding that the armbands did not interrupt the educational process, the Tinker case set a precedent for protecting students’ speech, even if the message is unpopular.
Building on this principles, the Supreme Court reached a mixed decision in Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982), a case that addressed a school board’s right to remove books from a school library. While acknowledging the right of school boards to determine what’s in a school library, the court also ruled that books cannot be removed simply because of their political or social content. In other words, disliking a book is not grounds for removal. (Age appropriateness—while itself debatable—is one allowable reason for removing a book. For example, Lady Chatterley’s Lover could legitimately be banned from an elementary school library.)
Responding to objections
Knowing legal precedent is helpful for educators and authors, but even this won’t stop parents or community members from raising objections. Then what?
Since education is the primary mission of a school, the rationale for defending books or curriculum content should center on the principles of good instruction. Here are a few strategies:
Acknowledge the objections. It may sound obvious, but simply acknowledging the nature of the objections can catalyze a conversation rather than escalate a confrontation. “I understand some people object to the book’s [language, theme, etc.]. I’d like to clarify my intentions with this selection.”
Have a clear learning objective in mind. Again, it’s about the learning. Here, tap standards focused on analysis, comparision, and other broad skills. Why? Because such standards (including Common Core) typically do not specify which texts to use. This enables you to present your content as a vehicle for meeting required competencies.
Emphasize thinking skills. Wrestling with information that challenges our beliefs is a time-tested way to strengthen critical thinking skills, such evaluating author motivation. Testing existing beliefs against new one can create the “cognitive dissonance” that helps us shake off old assumptions and see the world with fresher, more discerning eyes. Digging into different perspectives—whether we agree with them or not—is another skill that not only sharpens our thinking, but also builds empathy and social awareness. A “challenging” book is thus an educational opportunity to help kids learn how to think, not what to think.
Differentiate between teaching about and advocating for. Slavery, the Holocaust, and other atrocities are standard fare in any history class. But no one would suggest that addressing these topics is the same as endorsing them. The same logic can be applied to literature. Characters may engage in activities or display character traits we find questionable, but being asked to read about something is coercion to agree with it or even like it. Again, it’s about developing skills in thinking and perspective-taking.
Censorship and First Amendment freedoms are relevant whether you are a teacher, a writer, student, a reader— or all of these. Understanding the law and developing strategies to defend your choices are powerful ways to champion free speech in all aspects of your literary life.