Is it OK to ban certain books?

Banning books is like banning freedom of speech. But what if a book contains lots of violence or sex scenes? We put restrictions on films based on age, so why not books too? Banning a book is the best way to make sure it gets read! Hmm… this isn’t straightforward...

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Can you guess why these books were controversial from their titles?

In 1987, in a brilliant act of irony, a school in Florida banned Fahrenheit 451 - a book about the banning and burning of books.

In 1987, in a brilliant act of irony, a school in Florida banned Fahrenheit 451 - a book about the banning and burning of books.

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Should books ever be banned?

Freedom of speech is really important – but is that only true to a point? Sebastian Huempfer, from the University of Oxford’s Free Speech Debate Project, talks about the thinking behind banning some particularly controversial books. He thinks today’s young people are the luckiest ever when it comes to speaking their minds and challenging authority.


Back in 1925, Adolf Hitler wrote a book called ‘Mein Kampf’ which shared his thoughts and plans for running Germany. Essentially, it was an outpouring of hatred, detailing the principles that later guided his Nazi regime. A system that- we now know from history- caused the deaths and torture of millions of people. 

But should this book be banned today? Could it inspire other people to repeat history? This is a tricky area and one that Germany has had to deal with only very recently. At the end of World War Two, it was decided that no new publications of the book could be made. But the problem was there were already 70 million copies printed and in circulation, and it wasn’t illegal to own one. In 2012, the German government had to start thinking about what they could do when the book’s copyright expired at the end of 2015 – meaning that it could now be published freely again. In the end, they decided to publish a new, scholarly, annotated version of the text. In other words, the book would include explanations by experts on the meanings of key words and phrases. There would also be information about the book’s history and its social impact on people living in Austria at the time it was written and beyond. This way, it was hoped that the book would be educational for its readers.

Sebastian Huempfer thinks this is a good idea. He says that banning  a book gives it a sense of power and glamour.

“If you read [Mein Kampf], it’s a garbled mess of nonsense,” he points out. “If you tell people it’s dangerous [and] you’re not going to let anyone read it, that makes it sound like it’s powerful and seductive [attractive] in a way that it really isn’t.”

What about in school?

But it’s not just about what a government might say or do. Books might be banned by a school if the staff think they’re inappropriate for students to read – or an individual teacher might decide not to teach a particular book because of its content. 

This still happens today. Judy Blume’s books for teenagers have been taken out of some school libraries around the world for their frank discussion of sex, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was banned in some American schools for the way it wrote about religion. Even Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes has shocked some parents and teachers because of some of the gruesome ways his fairy-tale characters die! 

Huempfer says there are plenty of reasons why a book may be banned in a school. Teachers might decide a book is inappropriate for their classes, or librarians may not purchase a book for the library; even the Harry Potter series has been banned in some schools for its spooky and magical storylines. He also points out that sometimes school staff are worried about bringing up difficult topics – such as sex, religion, racism or death – and so they avoid books that talk about them, even if they don’t ban them completely.  

Taking a platform

The arguments around banning books are reflected in real-life as students and universities tackle the idea of “no-platforming”. This means when certain people are refused from speaking at events because their views are so outrageous and/or offensive. This happened at Manchester University in 2016 when feminist writer, Julie Bindel was stopped from speaking at the students’ union due to her controversial opinions on transgender people. 
“Students who are in favour of no-platforming would argue that it’s a type of self-expression. It’s a way for the University to say, ‘This is the kind of university we want to be and we don’t want to give certain people a platform’,” says Huempfer. 


But - he says that - historically, if you believe in free speech, you also believe in showing why you disagree with people by putting forward your arguments – not by stopping your opponents from speaking. 

Huempfer thinks the current generation of young people understand the value of all kinds of freedom of speech much more than their parents or grandparents. With so many ways in which to express your opinions – from social media to online comments to political activism – he says that young people really appreciate their opportunities to be heard.

“It’s a moment when there are a much greater variety of voices and a much smaller trust in authority,” he says. Protests such as the March for Europe and the development of smaller political parties such as the Women’s Equality Party are good examples of this.

Freedom of speech is really important – but what if people want to say or write something really offensive? Should everyone be able to say exactly what they like? This is a big debate that isn’t going away any time soon – instead it’s time for you to make up your mind.

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Should books have age ratings?

Dr Ian Thompson, Associate Professor of English Education at the University of Oxford considers the extent to which adults should influence and decide what kids read. Should grown-ups shelter kids from the reality of the world?

Let’s take a look at one of the most notable examples of book banning in history...

Let’s take a look at one of the most notable examples of book banning in history...

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The books the Nazis burned

In this short film, a Holocaust survivor, an Iranian author, an American literary critic, and two Museum historians discuss the Nazi book burnings, and why extreme political regimes often target culture, particularly literature.

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8 Well-known books that have changed the world!

  1. Republic by Plato
    1. Plato’s Republic (380 BCE) broadly discusses the nature of morality and what it means to be a good human being. The book begins by looking at morality on a larger societal scale rather than narrowing things down to focus on individual human ethics. From this, Plato goes on to say that whatever moral system one discovers from looking at society as a whole, can be directly applied to individual people too! Plato’s teachings revolve around the idea that there is one morality, applicable to single humans and the wider masses as well.
  2. The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu 
    1. The Tao Te Ching is a work of Chinese philosophy that explores what it means to be living. It dates back to at least the fourth century BC but tradition suggests it has its origins even earlier, around the sixth century BC. Tao Te Ching, (pronounced roughly: Dow Deh Jing) is a fascinating piece of Chinese philosophy dating from the time of Confucius (551-479 BCE), and written by Lao Tzu, whose name means "The Old Master" or "The Old Boy." The text talks about the art of living with humour, grace, good-hearted kindliness, and wisdom. 
      It presents two different ways of looking at philosophy, describing one route through life that can be expressed, and another that is mysterious and everlasting. According to Lao Tzu, the everlasting Tao is a foundation for all living beings; it is tidal and flows throughout all life. It is the beginning and the end of all things, and its love is contained within everything in the world.
  3. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels 
    1. This text written in 1847 was ground-breaking in inspiring people to start revolutionary action! The authors explore the predicted rise in capitalism- a political system where everyone makes their own money that they keep. Communism is different, that’s about everyone owning the same, with wealth and resources being shared evenly. Marx and Engels base their work on the moral belief that everyone in the world should live in an equal and fair society. The sentence: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” is at the core of Marxist principles, and refers to two types of people that Marx and Engels suggest society is split up into: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie are defined as “the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage-labour,” whereas the proletariat is classified as “the class of modern wage-labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power in order to live.
  4. On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin 
    1. This controversial text - published in 1859 - was where the theory of ‘Natural Selection’ was born. Take any animal as an example- any physical or mental characteristic it’s born with that allows it to survive better than others, will allow it to reproduce at a higher rate. An example of Natural Selection can be seen in some birds; scientists have noticed that finches with heavier beaks reproduce better because they can open seeds that are bigger than their smaller-beaked friends!
  5. The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud
    1. Sigmund Freud developed ‘Psychoanalysis’, the theory that humans can understand more about themselves by understanding their unconscious thoughts. In 'The Interpretation of Dreams' (1899), Freud suggests that the things we dream when we drift off to sleep are actually things that we unconsciously wish for. He writes about the ‘language’ of dreams which he says reveal things about a person’s mind that they may not know about. 
  6. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
    1. This book - first published in 1929 - is an extended essay which explores Virginia Woolf’s idea that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. Throughout the text, Woolf argues that a patriarchal society (one controlled by men) stops women from being able to fulfil their potential as writers. She says that women who did write literature from the late seventeenth century onwards, were aware of the fact that they had a lower status than men in society, and this made their writing worse. Woolf believes that as a writer, even having an awareness of gender is a negative thing. She says that we should think of ourselves as individuals, and not put ourselves into categories, in order to let our minds be free and creative.
  7. Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
    1. In 1942, 13 year old Jewish girl Anne Frank and her family ran away from the awfulness of the Nazi occupation by hiding in the back of an old warehouse with another family and a German dentist for two whole years. There were eight people living in the old warehouse, and every single day they had to remain hidden from the Nazis. They lived in constant fear of being caught and killed, and struggled with hunger and the mental strain of living in hiding. Anne Frank displayed incredible bravery throughout this time, and her diary has become a highly respected example of human resilience and courage.
  8. 1984 by George Orwell 
    1. This powerful book presents a ‘dystopia’, which means “An imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad” (Oxford Dictionaries).When George Orwell wrote this book in 1948, he was imagining a future where the government had complete control over society, through words that they told people to use, and by keeping a constant watch over everyone through ‘Telescreens’, a TV that looks at the viewers. In the book, every single human movement is viewed- there are even telescreens in toilet cubicles. There is no safe place away from the eyes of ‘Big Brother’, a force that oversees and controls all human activity. This is very much a political novel, designed to shock the reader and warn them of the power that those in control have over society.