Civil Liberties

Growing U.S. Support for Book Banning and Book Ratings Systems

Is the trigger warning crowd to blame?



American support for banning books jumped by more than 50 percent between 2011 and 2015, according to a recently released Harris Poll survey. Conducted last March, some 28 percent of the 2,244 U.S. adults surveyed answered yes to the question "Do you think that there are any books which should be banned completely?" (up from 18 percent in 2011). "While it's still a minority perception … I felt that from 18 to 28 percent in just four years was rather surprising growth," Harris Poll Research Manager Larry Shannon-Missal told Library Journal. 

To be fair, the poll wording is somewhat confusing, jumping from talking about the content of school libraries to books more generally in a way that may have influenced some responses. On the school-library front, a full 71 percent expect librarians to keep age-inappropriate books out of the hands of students. In addition, 60 percent think books containing explicit language should be kept from school bookshelves entirely, and 48 percent say the same about violent books. Those surveyed were also largely in favor of shielding students from books containing witchcraft or sorcery (44 percent), sexual activity (43 percent), drug or alcohol use (37 percent), and vampires (36 percent). That all seems pretty standard. More unsettling, perhaps, is the fact that 33 percent of Americans don't think school libraries should stock a copy of the Koran, while 29 percent want to keep out the Torah or Talmud and 13 percent would ban the bible. About a quarter think students should be kept from any books that question the existence of a divine being, while about 20 percent want to keep out books discussing creationism.  

Taking things outside the school walls is where this poll gets really icky, though. In addition to the 28 percent who say, yes, books should sometimes be banned completely in America, another 24 percent said they were "unsure" about the answer to this question. And 71 percent support books being rated in the same vein as movies, with 35 percent "strongly" in favor of this plan. 

Interestingly, there was less support for banning movies (16 percent), TV shows (16 percent) or video games (24 percent) outright. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), suggested that this speaks to the enduring power of books, but I can't help but think some comes from how much Americans think they would be personally affected by each ban. Ban the Koran? Yeah, yeah, sure. But you can have my Walking Dead and Skyrim when … etcetera. 

Peter Hart of the National Coalition Against Censorship said he would like to see results to more nuanced questions about censorship. More from Library Journal:

"We thought it would be helpful to ask questions that would try to draw people out a little bit," [Hart said.] "You say that you are in favor of banning any kind of book—well what about…The Great Gatsby? How do you feel about The Diary of Anne Frank? Or Beloved?… Who knows what someone has in mind when they're answering that question? A terrorist how-to guide? Are they thinking literature?"

[…] Censorship and institutionalized ratings are easy answers to difficult questions, said Caldwell-Stone. "I think it circles back to the fact that we don't talk about these issues from a civic standpoint," she told LJ. "We don't talk about the Bill of Rights anymore, and our commitment to educating students about civics has really declined in the last few decades." However, she noted, "There's always that other old adage that there should something in every library to offend someone."

Library Journal editor Lisa Peet notes that "the survey's results would seem to show a rise in conservative attitudes toward censorship, especially in the context of school libraries." True, true, but I wonder how much of the rise in conservative censorship views can be attributed to millennials of the left? Alas, Harris offers no generational breakdown for most of the book-banning survey questions. Millennials were, however, slightly more likely than Gen X'ers to support a book rating system, and only slightly less supportive than boomer or senior counterparts.  

Republicans, meanwhile, were still almost twice as likely as others to believe some books should be banned completely, with 42 percent support, compared to 23 percent for Democrats and 22 percent for political independents. College graduates were somewhat less likely than those with a high-school education or less to support book bans (24 percent, versus 33 percent).