Commentary: Are book bans unconstitutional? They are certainly political

A student holds a sign that reads "Stop Book Banning" at a rally at a Florida school district meeting.
A student holds a sign that reads “Stop Book Banning” at a rally at a Florida school district meeting. School districts in that state and others have passed a slew of laws restricting reading material available in the schools.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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In Missouri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” about the Holocaust faces possible removal from schools for at least the third time over its depiction of a female character in a bathtub.

In South Carolina, an Advanced Placement teacher has been forced to abandon her lesson about systemic racism using “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates after some students complained about feeling uncomfortable.

And in Southern California, elementary school students in the Temecula Valley Unified School District may be short of textbooks next year after the board of education voted against approving a curriculum that includes mention of slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk.


These incidents happened within the last month as a wave of book banning continues to spread nationwide. People pushing for bans do so under the guise of protecting kids from material inappropriate for their age, but a closer look at the books targeted reveals an ugly pattern. Most were about or written by people who are LGBTQ+ and people of color, especially Black writers. Such commonalities suggest a concerted effort to expunge books by writers from these communities.

In many cases conservative donors, think tanks and organizers have been providing playbooks on what to get banned and how.

Feb. 20, 2022

It’s heartening that public leaders, civil rights organizations, parents, students and others are increasingly challenging the constitutionality of book restrictions. President Biden announced that he will appoint a federal coordinator to address the surge of book bans.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta and Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond early this month jointly issued a five-page warning to California’s school superintendents reminding them that the U.S. Constitution restricts the removal of books from libraries and curriculum. They also noted that the state education code requires public schools to provide instruction on “the role and contributions of both men and women, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups.”

In a tweet earlier this month reacting to the textbook vote at the Temecula school district, Newsom wrote, “In the Golden State, our kids have the freedom to learn.” Californians are fortunate to have state officials actively fighting for the free expression of ideas. The residents of other states aren’t as lucky.

Banned Books Critical Race Theory Censorship

Oct. 2, 2022

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders, for example, believes that librarians should face criminal penalties for distributing material that is harmful to kids. But who decides what is harmful? Not surprisingly, a coalition of groups such as the Arkansas Library Assn. has filed a lawsuit alleging that the book ban law, which goes into effect in August, does not respect intellectual freedom and is unconstitutional. The suit says the law is a direct attack on free speech.

Banning books is not just about removing certain reading material from school and library shelves, but about restricting ideas. Rarely do these conversations about restricting books include their educational or artistic benefits. It seems easier to remove books based on key words or one picture rather than debate their merits.


This is what’s happening with the graphic nonfiction novel “Maus” by Art Spiegelman. The book has been widely lauded for its deft and powerful depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust. However, one picture of a woman in a bathtub showing an angled view of her breasts may violate a newly passed state law that threatens teachers with up to a year in jail if convicted of providing “explicit sexual material to a student.”

Kudos for Los Angeles and Glendale school board members for not kowtowing to a small group of anti-LGBTQ+ agitators trying to turn parents against one another.

June 9, 2023

Not surprisingly, the law has had a chilling effect on school districts in Missouri, which have pulled more than 300 book titles from library shelves since the law was passed last year.

Book bans have been increasing since 2021, when the “parental rights” movement sprang up. These parents claim they want a bigger say in school matters, but what they really seem to want is to have their conservative viewpoint be the only one represented in the schools.

More than 2,500 books were the targets of bans in the U.S. last year, nearly double the previous year, the most in a single year since such data began to be collected more than 20 years ago, according to the American Library Assn.

Branches of the American Civil Liberties Union have increasingly been filing lawsuits challenging these book removals in various states. Eventually, courts will have to decide whether bans violate laws protecting freedom of speech, equal protection or other anti-censorship laws.

I hope they do so soon. As a parent, I know that books should be viewed as tools of enlightenment, not tools of oppression.