Should books about sensitive topics be banned in public libraries?

In a time when there is much debate around political correctness and understanding how certain ideas and language can be offensive to others, the question arises of whether the content displayed in public libraries should also abide by such rules

Rise of the Issue

Public libraries, like other public spaces, allow U.S. residents to freely read, write, speak, act, and otherwise add to their communities. As such, public libraries, and the range of unrestricted information inside them, enable self-governance. But even First Amendment rights have limits, and that includes the information and images residents are forced to encounter in public spaces like libraries. 

Since the end of WWII, different restrictions on books and the information that circulates emerged in order to make sure that the right ideas were circulating. In the 1960s however, another movement took hold, with parts of the population being against these restrictions. They asked for the government to not get involved in defining what constitutes appropriate ideas, and let citizens decide for themselves what they think is right for them or not. 

Those in line with this vision argue that the Constitution’s First Amendment assures everyone not just rights, but also the ability to come together and speak whatever truths they believe power needs to hear. Government may not limit the content of these acts and talks, with limited exceptions to prevent violence or chaos, and to protect children. Others however, feel that public libraries must remain friendly to all patrons, and that in order to do that, some type of information must be removed from public spaces.

Issue Timeline


McCarthyism and Red Scare shake library collections

After World War II, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. began competing for global influence. Worried about communists infesting government and other offices, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) and the House Un-American Activities Committee whipped fear of communist spies into hysteria attacking free speech in all fora. McCarthyism finally withered after the U.S. Senate censured McCarthy in December 1954.


Split Supreme Court leaves open students’ rights in school libraries

After middle and high school libraries removed books from the library, students sued to have access to all removed materials. In a rare 4-4-1 plurality opinion, the evenly-divided Court could not say whether students have a right to access information from school libraries.


Cincinnati jury acquits arts center of obscenity after Maplethorpe exhibit

Photographer Robert Maplethorpe’s visual arts show included, among other subjects, nude males and homosexual sado-masochism. County prosecutors charged the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) and then-director Dennis Barrie with obscenity for hosting Maplethorpe’s show.


Supreme Court upholds content filters on public library computers

Congress used the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) to require, among other things, that public libraries put electronic filters on forward-facing public computers, to prevent certain internet materials from being displayed to minors. The Supreme Court analogized these electronic filters to libraries’ discretion in selecting and displaying books.

Micro Issues


Rights to free press, speech, and association

Those against a ban believe that individuals have the right to say and read anything they wish, with limited exceptions for inciting violence or criminality. Rights to read otherwise uncensored information, and to associate with others regarding that information, are fundamental liberties. Those in favor argue that public facilities using public resources remain subject to public standards of conduct. While content enjoys vast protections from official regulation, the Constitution permits some restrictions on the time, place, and manner of most speech.


Libraries as public venues

While some see libraries as community collection points where every type of information that might be of interest to a reader should be available, others argue that as public venues, everyone should feel comfortable with what is being displayed.


Children’s access to information

Those in favor argue that in the case of what children should be allowed to access, parents should be the ones choosing what their kids get to read, including materials available at public venues. Others believe that access to information that is different from what one’s environment promotes or even agrees with is crucial for one’s own reflection, and children would therefore benefit from getting access to content that is not necessarily accessible to them at home.

Pro Arguments


Citizen challenges to objectionable content allows leaders to protect community standards.

Local citizens should keep some ability to challenge materials their public must see.


Restricting access to objectionable materials lets parents protect their children.

Preventing minors from accessing objectionable materials, and allowing parents to object about materials, gives parents the necessary input about their children’s rearing and education.


Removing objectionable material from general view lets public libraries remain neutral gathering spaces.

Public libraries exist as spaces accommodating to all. That accommodation and neutrality disappears if non-consenting residents must view objectionable materials to use the library.


Substantial, and adequate information always remains available, even without the most questionable materials taking public space.

If a “special collections” designation can separate objectionable materials from minors and unwilling adult viewers, but all other adults can access the material, then the limited restriction on speech still meets constitutional muster.


Not all materials are appropriate for all locations.

Even strictly-protected political speech may face reasonable restrictions about time, place, and manner of presentation. Not every book’s segregation is a First Amendment violation.

Con Arguments


Government regulation of content generally violates the First Amendment.

The First Amendment protects a wide range of uncomfortable and even grossly offensive speech, except in exceptional cases like seeking violence.


Librarians are trained to collect, curate, and access information, not parents nor politicians.

Library sciences train individuals to cultivate and cull collections of knowledge. Experts and librarians understand that some materials can elicit sensitive reactions, and are trained to respond accordingly.


Confrontation with uncomfortable information encourages open mindedness.

It is one of the advantages and purposes of public spaces to confront individuals with people and ideas that are different from what they’re used to. Public spaces are the building blocks of a democracy in that they force people to acknowledge different points of view and accept that they exist, regardless of whether they agree with them or not.


Public accessibility of information cannot depend on the sensitivities of some.

The “heckler’s veto” numbs public conversation to the lowest common denominator, the community’s most sensitive member. Public spaces cannot be governed by such principles or else almost no content would remain, as there would rarely be an idea or a book that someone doesn’t object to or feel offended by.


Public venues are essential community spaces for free association and exchange of information.

Libraries and other public places give everyone an equal chance to speak their piece. Limiting the speech that libraries can help to exchange undermines the facility’s academic and civic missions.