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Banned Books Week: Can Schools Ban Books?

Perhaps in honor of Banned Books Week (Sept. 24 - Oct. 1), a school district in southwest Missouri has chosen to partially remove two novels from its list of banned books.

Slaughterhouse-Five and Twenty Boy Summer will now be available in the school library. However, only parents may check them out, and they cannot be assigned as mandatory reading.

Isn't it unconstitutional for schools to ban books?

Yes, and no.

A school district is not free to remove books that already exist in its libraries.

In Island Trees School District v. Pico, the Supreme Court found in favor of students challenging the removal of books from a school library. The court wrote that schools may "not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books."

A book's removal violates the First Amendment if it is motivated by a desire to hide opposing viewpoints. Alternatively, schools can ban books that are vulgar or unsuitable for children of a certain age.

The court limited this decision solely to book removal. It explained that school districts have discretion to choose books for classroom discussion and campus libraries. They can simply choose not to purchase a book, or exclude it from curricula.

As for whether a school can prohibit students from bringing banned books onto campus, the answer is far less clear. If the presence of those books somehow causes substantial disruption, then it's likely the ban can be applied to private copies.

Ultimately, schools can ban books if they have a very good reason.

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