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Do Students Have a Right to Read?

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.

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.

This lesson is part of Education for Freedom: Lesson Plans for Teaching the First Amendment and is provided by the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan center dedicated to the understanding and appreciation of the values of the First Amendment.

Last updated: Sunday, February 14, 2016 | 13:03:50