Do Students Have a Right to Read?

  Civics, United States History, Language Arts

Students have the right to learn. Teachers have the right to teach. Parents have the right to know what their children are learning and the freedom to protest if they consider it unsuitable or detrimental. Americans have the right to control their local schools by appointing or electing school board members who assume legal responsibility for budgetary and curriculum matters.

It's almost inevitable that the interests of all these groups will often collide. One result can be challenges to books on public school library shelves.

In this interdisciplinary lesson, students use several sources to learn how the First Amendment protects their access to books in the school library. Students examine a Supreme Court decision and their own school district's policy about the removal of controversial books from school libraries. Students will create a mock call-in radio program and write a position paper or editorial.

This lesson requires co-teaching with the school librarian and/or a school administrator. Review the lesson with these individuals ahead of time so that they will understand their roles in helping students understand your district's school-library policies. The librarian can also assist you in putting together a display of banned and/or challenged books to use with the lesson.

Key concepts

  • The First Amendment has a role in affording the public access to discussion, debate and dissemination of information and ideas.
  • The First Amendment right to distribute literature also protects the right to receive it.
  • The First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press extend to public school libraries.
  • School boards cannot restrict the availability of books in public school libraries simply because school-board members disagree with certain ideas or content.
  • School officials may remove books from the public school library based on educational suitability, but they may not "prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion."

First Principles

  • The First Amendment affirms the freedom of the individual.
  • The First Amendment tells the government to keep its "hands off" our religion, our ideas, our ability to express ourselves.
  • Other people have rights, too.

First moments
Ask students what Of Mice and Men, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and the Bible have in common. The answer? They have all been challenged or banned in public schools. Display a selection of banned or challenged books in a prominent place in your classroom. Include in this selection books meant for children and any that might be taught in your school's English program. The books may also come from your school's library. Ask students to speculate on what these books have in common. If no one mentions the correct answer, explain that these also have been challenged or banned or that students' access to them in school has been prohibited. Your school librarian may have American Library Association material on challenged or banned books.

How many of these books have students read? If students have read any of the books on display, did they find them to be entertaining, informative, beneficial or objectionable? Can they suggest reasons why someone would object to elementary, middle school or high school students reading these books?


1. Remind students that the First Amendment protects free speech and a free press. Discuss the First Principles that apply to this lesson, explaining that these are some of the ways in which the First Amendment has served U.S. citizens.

For example:

  • When people are able to choose freely among many different competing ideas, they make better choices.
  • Exposure to competing ideas provides us with variety, enriching our society.
  • Individuals whose strongly held, unpopular opinions are given an outlet may be less apt to resort to violence than if their ideas are suppressed.
  • Because many decisions in our society are made by the majority, protection of minority rights ensures that the ideas of smaller, less popular groups are not suppressed by the majority. In time, the majority may come to agree with these minority groups.
  • Citizens' ability to criticize the government helps prevent the government from misusing its power.

To check for student understanding, ask students to give a journal response to this question: "Which benefits of the First Amendment does reading most clearly provide us?"

2. Next, ask students to define censorship, the act of examining and expurgating (removing) something objectionable. What effect does book censorship have on an individual's ability to recognize the benefits of the First Amendment? Explain to students that the pressures to suppress freedom of expression are widespread and powerful in society. This is why it is so important to fully understand the benefits of free expression of ideas to society. Ask students to review the responses in their journal entries (Procedure 1) as they consider the effects book censorship might have on the benefits of free expression.

3. In 1982 the Supreme Court examined the issue of book censorship in school libraries. Distribute Case Study: Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982). Review the facts of the case with students. Individually, students should identify the best arguments for Opinion A and for Opinion B by listing the arguments in two columns. During class discussion, students should be prepared to give reasons for their selection of arguments.

Explain to students that Opinion A was the majority opinion in a 5-4 decision in the case Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982). The court held that "as centers for voluntary inquiry and the dissemination of information and ideas, school libraries enjoy a special affinity with the rights of free speech and press.

Therefore, the Board could not restrict the availability of books in its libraries simply because its members disagreed with their idea content." Returning once again to their First Amendment benefits, can students find references to the benefits of First Amendment free expression in the justices' writings excerpted here?

4. Explain to students that as a result of the Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico Supreme Court case, public school districts around the country developed policies concerning book challenges in elementary, middle and high school libraries. Students have a First Amendment right to receive the ideas discussed in books, but this right is interpreted in light of the special characteristics of the school environment. The court held that school officials may not remove books from a school library simply because they do not like the messages conveyed. School officials may remove books from the school library based on educational suitability as long as the motivation is for reasons other than content, such as preventing student exposure to obscene or vulgar messages.

Distribute copies of your school's policy on removing books from the school's library. Invite the school librarian and/or school administrator to explain the policy to students.

Ask some specific questions:

  • Has the policy ever been used in your school?
  • Who makes library acquisition decisions?
  • Do students have full First Amendment rights at school?
  • How might the age of students limit their First Amendment rights?

Examine the school policy:

  • Does the policy reflect the viewpoints of various groups in your community?
  • To what extent is it content-neutral?
  • Does it include a fair appeals process?
  • Do students think the policy is consistent with the First Amendment?

5. Divide students into four groups. They will create a call-in radio show. The topic for the show: "Banning Books - Should school administrators have the authority to remove books from public school libraries?" To assist the teacher, "Organize a Call-in Radio Show" is provided.

6. Have students write a position paper or editorial on the topic of whether school administrators should have the authority to remove books from public school libraries.


1. Have students select and read a book that has been banned or challenged. There are several online sources for books: the American Library Association Banned Books Week, The On-Line Books Page presents Banned Books On-Line, and Bonfire of Liberties. Ask students to develop a report that focuses on the importance in their own lives of the freedom of expression provided by reading. In their reports, students should include their own beliefs about book censorship by taking and defending a position on the particular banned book they have read.

2. Discuss your school's selection-of-instructional-materials policy with the school librarian. How does the library help meet the educational mission of your school? How does the school's policy compare with the criteria guidelines suggested by the American Library Association?

Students might prepare a list of suggested acquisitions for the library. Are there certain areas of the collection that need to be strengthened, such as art and computer graphics, constitutional law and history, literature or science and technology? Students must find the cost of each book, periodical, film and CD on their list. Provide students with a budget and divide them into groups to debate which items must remain on the list and which must be deleted in order to meet the budget. Have groups share their final list with the class and school librarian. Then discuss how the librarian makes final choices in order to meet the academic goals of the school, to balance and update selections and to avoid waste.


On the Web
The Freedom to Read Statement
A joint statement of the American Library Association and Association of American Publishers, endorsed by 18 additional organizations.

The American Library Association Library Bill of Rights
The Library Bill of Rights and its applications.

The Students' Right to Read
National Council of Teachers of English position paper.

"Trying to shut out the light by banning books"
First Amendment ombudsman Paul McMasters probes over 500 years of censorship attempts: "Mainz may have been the birthplace of both the printing press and the banning of books, but censorship itself was born in the fearful heart of the first human being."

"Book controversies in schools defy easy answers"
Charles Haynes provides perspective on attempts to remove books from classrooms and libraries.

Banned Books Week
American Library Association's resource guide, challenged-and-banned-books kits and ways to celebrate your freedom to read.

Banned Books Week
Amnesty International encourages the reading of works by individuals who were persecuted because of "the writings that they produce, circulate or read."

NCTE Anti-Censorship Center
National Council of Teachers of English provides guidelines for dealing with censorship of nonprint materials, selecting materials for English Language Arts programs, and defending teaching methods and rationales for challenged books.

Censorship of Curriculum Materials.
ERIC Digest Series Number EA44 ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management provides an overview of censorship in the school environment and guidance for handling controversy when it occurs.

Parents Against Bad Books In Schools
Begun in 2001 by a group of eight parents in Fairfax County, Va., PABBIS seeks to establish specific standards for appropriate reading material for children of different age groups. In order to inform parents of the mature content in the literature their children are reading in school and choosing from summer reading lists, the site links to sexually explicit and violent quotations from over 40 books.

Modern History Sourcebook: Council of Trent: Rules on Prohibited Books
Primary source for condemnation of certain books.

A 2000 Jefferson Center Muzzle Award was given to the Rockingham County (Va.) School Board, et. al, who reprimanded a Spotswood High School English teacher for posting on his classroom door the American Library Association pamphlet that listed banned books.

Prepares to Defend High School Teacher's Right to Post List of Banned Books Press release and 1999 letter in support of free speech rights of Spotswood (Va.) H.S. English teacher.

Newton v. Rockingham County Schools
The Constitution in the Classroom Web site provides the document filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, January 12, 2000, analysis of the school board's arguments, and plaintiff's dismissal of the case after the resignation of the teacher.

"Harry Potter tales top list of most challenged books of 1999"

"Defusing the debate over 'Harry Potter'"
If a parent of member of the community is not wild over Harry Potter - or another book - what should your response be? Charles Haynes offers three suggestions and a word of advice.

Issue #76: "Is Harry Potter Evil?"
The National Coalition Against Censorship reprints Judy Blume's essay that was published originally in October 1999 in The New York Times. Blume knows censorship. Her works have often been challenged.

National Coalition Against Censorship
Articles, reprints and online resources for schools about censorship issues. NCAC was founded in 1974, an alliance of more than 40 national nonprofit organizations.

Notable First Amendment Cases

NCTE - Not a Censor!
A response to an article in The Washington Post regarding The Catcher in the Rye.

A clearinghouse for resources on censorship.

Book Censorship Bibliography
The Freedom Forum provides a bibliography of books, periodicals and on-line resources.

In Print
Hentoff, Nat. The Day They Came to Arrest the Book. 1982, reissue 1999. First Amendment expert Hentoff focuses on the controversy of using The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a high school language arts/history class. The book was adapted for a CBS "After School Special" of the same name.

Garden, Nancy. The Year They Burned the Books. 1999.
An editorial supporting her school's new policy and personal gender-identity questions give newspaper editor Jamie Crawford a senior year to remember.

National Coalition Against Censorship. Public Education, Democracy, Free Speech: The Ideas That Define And Unite Us. 2000.
The National Education Association and NCAC collaborated to produce this booklet to stress the link between public education and the constitutional right to free speech and inquiry.

Brinkley, Ellen Henson. Caught Off Guard: Teachers Rethinking Censorship and Controversy. Prentice Hall. 1999.
In addition to censorship issues in student publications, this work covers book banning.

National Standards
United States History, Standard 8: Understands the institutions and practices of government created during the Revolution and how these elements were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the American political system based on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Civics, Standard 3: Understands the sources, purposes, and functions of law, and the importance of the rule of law for the protection of individual rights and the common good.

Language Arts, Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.

United States History, Standard 8, Grades 9-12: Understands the Bill of Rights and various challenges to it (e.g., arguments by Federalists and Anti-Federalists over the need for a Bill of Rights, the Alien and Sedition Acts, recent court cases involving the Bill of Rights).

Civics, Standard 3, Grades 6-8: Understands the possible consequences of the absence of a rule of law (e.g., anarchy, arbitrary and capricious rule, absence of predictability, disregard for established and fair procedures); Grades 9-12: Knows alternative ideas about the purposes and functions of law (e.g., regulating relationships among people and between people and their government; providing order, predictability, security, and established procedures for the management of conflict; regulating social and economic relationships in civil society).

Language Arts, Standard 1: Grades 6-8: Uses content, style, and structure (e.g., formal or informal language, genre, organization) appropriate for specific audiences (e.g., public, private) and purposes (e.g., to entertain, to influence, to inform); Grades 9-12: Uses strategies to adapt writing for different purposes (e.g., to explain, inform, analyze, entertain, reflect, persuade); Grades 9-12: Writes persuasive compositions that address problems/solutions or causes/effects (e.g., articulates a position through a thesis statement; anticipates and addresses counter arguments; backs up assertions using specific rhetorical devices [appeals to logic, appeals to emotion, uses personal anecdotes]; develops arguments using a variety of methods such as examples and details, commonly accepted beliefs, expert opinion, cause-and-effect reasoning, comparison-contrast reasoning).

English: While reading Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 or observing Banned Books Week, include this unit of study.

Humanities: While studying the Holocaust, include the Nazi censorship of art and burning of books. Use this lesson to connect to the idea of the inherent threat of government censorship to freedom.

Broadcast/Television production: As students are developing their technological skills to produce a radio or television program, give them this assignment so they have content for their programming.