Book Banning Hits a Road Block: The First Amendment

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Two court verdicts keep some popular titles on library shelves

Harry Potter, Heather's Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate must be very proud. Wednesday, in Wichita Falls, Tex., a federal judge struck down a local law permitting locals to pull "objectionable" books from the library shelves (including those featuring the aforementioned characters), calling the measure unconstitutional. Outside Toronto, Canada, the Durham school board reversed itself, eliminating the need for students to bring in permission slips before the "Harry Potter" books could be read in class. "I think they're silly books," the chairman of the school board, who argued against the restriction, told wire reporters. "But my wife likes them."

The 1990s were a banner decade for book banning — or, more accurately, for attempts to ban books, and if this year is any predictor, the next 10 years won't be any better. The wildly popular "Harry Potter" series sparked myriad complaints; some parents maintain that the books, which follow the path of a young wizard as he learns to use his magic skills, advocate witchcraft. Numerous school districts have considered banning the series from classrooms, but only a few have made good on the threat. According to the American Library Association, more than 5,000 complaints were recorded at school and public libraries over the past 10 years. "The Catcher in the Rye," "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" were among the titles adults found most offensive.

Why the flurry to pull so many books? There's no clear-cut cause, but some psychologists speculate the rising incidence of parental concern could have to do with the success and ubiquity of the Internet. Shaken by recent school violence and charges against violent Hollywood films, parents are becoming ever more aware of the web sites, commercials and movies influencing their kids — a rising consciousness that, paired with fear, can translate easily into hypersensitivity and, in the worst cases, censorship.