Bored with the First Amendment | Scales on Censorship

Enliven lessons by discussing Supreme Court cases and challenged books.

How common is it for someone to challenge all library materials on a topic? This hasn’t happened in the public library where I work, but local churches are urging members to challenge materials in schools on the occult and witchcraft.
Individuals and groups have been trying to challenge all materials on specific content areas since ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom began tracking challenges to books and materials. Children’s books about witchcraft and the occult have always been problematic to some people, but the first Harry Potter book in 1997 brought the topic front and center. Now, LGBTQ+ content is the latest area targeted by churches, community organizations, and individuals wishing to control what children read. Their rationale: Children will be warped by the topic.

Since school and public libraries make their catalogs available online, it’s easy for censors to list materials they deem “inappropriate” for children. This can be controlled with a good materials reconsideration policy. It should make clear that individual materials may be challenged and reconsidered, but not entire topics. This may halt broad efforts to ban materials dealing with a specific issue.


An eighth grade teacher wants to develop a different approach to teaching the First Amendment to her students. She says they are bored with the textbook analysis.
Students need to understand the First Amendment in its historical context, and they also need to know how to apply it to their own lives. Suggest that the teacher assign them to read about Supreme Court cases where students have fought for First Amendment rights:

1. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)

2. Board of Education v. Pico (1982)

3. Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988)

Debating both sides of an issue helps students understand how complicated free speech is today. Have them discuss how Morse v. Frederick (2007) is different from Tinker v. Des Moines. It appears to be a similar issue about students’ right to free speech in school, but the Supreme Court ruled against the former while ruling in favor of Tinker.

Book censorship is still a major problem in schools. Give students a list of challenged titles and ask them to check ones they’ve read. Discuss why each has been challenged. Divide the class into three groups and have each read a challenged book. I suggest The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and The House of Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.

Each group should then conduct a mock Reconsideration Committee meeting, an opportunity for students to listen to all sides of an issue.

I encourage the teacher to include a discussion about rights and responsibilities. This should include appropriate behavior on social media sites. Most students don’t realize how inflammatory speech or bullying on social media can get them in trouble at school.

The internet is like the historical public square where anyone can speak about any topic and slant it to their own bias. It’s increasingly important that teachers help students recognize such biases and encourage them to read about topics from many viewpoints before they form an opinion. All Americans have the right to express themselves, but their thoughts will be better heard if they back their ideas with relevant information.


I work in a large public library system. All materials are selected by the collection development staff. I asked why so few graphic novels were bought for the children’s collection and was told that “most graphic novels aren’t appropriate.”
This is simply not true. Reviews show just how many graphic novels are available for children. Someone in that department is interjecting their own bias. Arrange a meeting with the collection development staff. If that doesn’t work, speak to the director.

Pat Scales is the former chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. Send questions to

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