What are Examples of Censorship?
…at an academic library?
- Collections not reflecting the wide range of research and pedagogical needs of their campus community.
- Removing exhibits and unique collections (such as archives, special collections, and digital repositories) without following established reconsideration policy/procedure.
- Faculty being restricted from teaching and researching potentially controversial topics.
…at a public library?
- Deciding not to purchase a popular title because they personally object to the content or author.
- Requiring a user to ask for access to regularly circulating materials (e.g., reshelving, behind a desk).
- Library boards require library staff to pull materials without following established reconsideration policy/procedure.
… at a school library?
- Requiring a parent/guardian’s signature to check out material within the student’s regular school library.
- Creating guidelines to restrict materials based on the age, reading level, or grade of the student.
- School administration or community members removing materials from the library without following established reconsideration policy/procedure.
…at a business?
- A company may choose to not sell certain materials. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional. Private companies are allowed to set their own rules and regulations about what they will or won’t carry or allow on their platform.
The removal of materials from a library based on the objections of a person or group.
Limiting or removing access to words, images, or ideas. The decision to restrict or deny access is made by a governing authority. This could be a person, group, or organization/business. Censorship by the government is illegal.
An attempt to have a library resource removed, or access to it restricted, based on the objections of a person or group.
Collection Development Policy
Guidelines libraries use for the selection, purchasing, and deselection of materials. The policy assists library workers in building a collection that aligns with the Library’s mission and can be made public to inform library users of the guidelines. It also has procedures for handling challenges.
Harmful To minors
Sexually explicit materials that adults have a legal right to access, but that lack any serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors. It is illegal to knowingly distribute these materials to any minor. The fact that a work has topics addressing sex, or contains sexual content, does not make the material “harmful to minors.” Whether materials are considered “harmful to minors” is determined by a court using the same three-part test for obscenity.
Intellectual freedom gives people the right to think for themselves. It respects individual dignity and self-rule. This freedom allows people to form their own ideas and opinions by questioning the world around them. Every person has the right to access information from all points of view, in all formats, and without restriction. Privacy is required for true intellectual freedom. Protection of this freedom assures every person’s right to form their own ideas and opinions.
Obscenity Or Obscene Material
Sexually themed speech or expressive materials that are not protected by the First Amendment. The legal test for obscenity includes the following criteria: (1) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to “prurient interest,” (2) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (3) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Only a judge or jury can find that a work is legally obscene.
Written or visual materials that are designed to cause sexual excitement. Under U.S. law, “pornography” has no legal definition. Instead, courts and legislatures identify illegal sexually themed content as “obscenity,” which is defined by statute in federal and state law.
For more definitions, see the Intellectual Freedom Manual
What Materials, Resources, or Services Are Frequently Challenged in Libraries?
The types of materials, resources, and services challenged in libraries can differ based on factors such as library type, locale, user base, and more. Therefore the response to this question will be broad-based. Currently, the topics/themes of the most frequent challenges deal with the subjects of the LGBTQ+ community, sex education, race, racism, activism, and/or persecution of religious minorities.
Additional Resources: Top 10 Most Frequently Challenged Books
Are There Any Laws against Censorship?
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the freedom of speech and expression against all levels of government censorship. “The First Amendment does not allow the government to get rid of or limit the use of books or ideas because they are controversial, unpopular, or offensive.” (ACLU Advocacy Toolkit)
Additional Resources: ACLU Advocacy Toolkit: Censorship and Banned Books
Can Some Censorship Be Legal?
Private entities can determine what materials they will or will not disseminate. Do not confuse this with censorship as it applies to government entities. There are currently attempts in some states to legalize government censorship through the passage of bills that restrict teaching and learning activities. This Pen America article links to a spreadsheet indexing education gag orders. This index is updated weekly. Though geared toward teaching, these laws can also affect school and academic libraries.
What’s the Difference between Selection and Censorship?
Selection is following a collection development policy. Library workers use their expertise to select items for the community they serve. There are various constraints and factors that library workers consider when they are purchasing materials for their communities’ collections. Censorship occurs when a library worker strays from the collection development policy to not select certain materials based on personal beliefs or fear of controversy.
- Not Censorship, But Selection by Lester Asheim
What Is Unilateral Censorship by a Library Worker?
Unilateral censorship is when a library worker chooses to exclude or restrict access to materials or services without consulting anyone. This may occur by not selecting material for purchase that otherwise follows the budget and collection development policy. Additional examples of library worker unilateral censorship include redacting information from materials by blacking out words or cutting out photos, labeling materials, or restricting access to avoid a challenge before it occurs.
How Can Our Library Prepare before a Challenge?
Being prepared before a challenge can help you feel confident in responding when one occurs.
- Understand your policies. Have printed copies and any associated forms available for easy access. If you do not have a reconsideration form or collection development policy, use the ALA Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit.
- Ensure all administrators and user-facing staff are aware of the policies and where to access them.
- Apply the policies. Everyone who would like to challenge materials should go through the pre-approved policy procedures.
- Familiarize yourself with the materials being challenged that are in your collection. Read as many as you can. Consider making “report cards” for materials that have been challenged in neighboring libraries or districts.
- Reserve judgment. Do not form opinions on materials based on provocative passages presented out of context.
- Practice what you will say if someone challenges material. Role playing with others can be an effective method to prepare.
- Share information about challenges with neighboring libraries and districts, including your response.
- Learn more about the First Amendment: Notable First Amendment Cases, First Amendment FAQ
- Report Challenges to ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.
Additional Resources: Materials Concern Checklist (PDF)
What Can I Do If Someone Makes a Challenge at My Library?
- First, listen to the person to understand their concerns. Use active listening skills to facilitate a resolution.
- If a resolution is not possible, explain the library’s reconsideration policy.
- If their behavior disrupts the library, refer to your library use policy.
- At all times, follow your library’s reconsideration policy. Following the policy ensures a consistent process, respects the rights of everyone in the community, and upholds expectations.
Sometimes, library staff, teachers, or board members may be the ones to file the challenge. Direct them through the same reconsideration policy, connecting them with the appropriate contact within the library.
How Do I Respond to Complaints of Providing Inappropriate Materials or Services in the Library?
When responding to complaints online, first check your social media policy and/or check with library leadership to determine if you can block or delete posts that are defamatory or become harassing. Do not engage.
When responding to complaints in person, listen and attempt to gather more information. Try to determine the situation, materials, or services of concern. Like many challenges, it may not be directed to you personally.
If this feels like an attack on you or your institution, keep the conversation focused on the library. For example, you might say, “That accusation is not true. Our library believes in the freedom to read and the right of every individual to make their own choice.” Always have access to your Reconsideration Policy available so they can file their objections formally.
Refer to your Behavior Policy if necessary.
How Can Libraries and Library Workers Defend Themselves against Organized Efforts at Censorship?
All libraries should have in place a current selection and reconsideration policy. This should include procedures on how to address challenges. Consider including requirements that the individual have standing of some kind, such as: living in the library’s district, having a library card, or having a child attending the school. Libraries may also consider allowing only one active challenge per person during a certain time frame.
Uniting communities in support of the freedom to read is also vital to facing these well organized and well-funded groups challenging materials across the country. Unite Against Book Bans has an Action Toolkit that anyone can use to develop talking points, contact decision makers and media, organize, and spread the word through social media.
Where Can Library Workers Go for Support?
- ALA Fight Censorship includes numerous resources for library workers, including advice on how to prepare for a challenge.
- Freedom to Read Foundation (Legal & Financial Assistance) protects and defends the First Amendment to the Constitution and supports the right of libraries to collect and individuals to access information.
- LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund provides financial support to library workers who have been denied employment rights for defending intellectual freedom or who have been discriminated against on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, color, creed, religion, age, disability, or place of national origin.
- National Coalition Against Censorship Resource Guide provides help to librarians, educators, students, and anyone else who seeks to promote free expression and challenge censorship.
- PEN America Online Harassment Guide offers strategies on how to defend yourself and others.
- Unite Against Book Bans Action Toolkit includes help on grassroots organizing, talking points, and advice on how to contact politicians and the media.
Dealing with censorship challenges at your library or need to get prepared for them? Visit the ALA Fight Censorship page for easy-to-access resources.
The LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund supports library workers whose employment is threatened due to their defense of intellectual freedom.
Unite Against Book Bans is a national initiative to empower readers everywhere to stand together in the fight against censorship. Share resources from the Action Toolkit with your community and help defend the right to read for all Americans.
The Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) is a non-profit legal and educational organization affiliated with the American Library Association. FTRF protects and defends the First Amendment to the Constitution and supports the right of libraries to collect — and individuals to access — information.
Updated July 24, 2023 by the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee.