As we face the worst spate of book bans since the Red Scare of the 1950s, PEN America has compiled a timeline of the most notorious acts of censorship, and how we’ve fought to keep books available for readers.  As part of its ongoing commitment to promoting literature and defending free expression worldwide, PEN America joins writers, journalists, and free expression activists in celebrating the freedom to read. 

For more on PEN America’s banned books research and advocacy, and to find out what you can do to help, go to

1601 – Shakespeare Faces Censorship from Queen Elizabeth I

Supporters of the Earl of Essex request a performance of William Shakespeare’s Richard II before leading an uprising against Queen Elizabeth I. The queen subsequently demands the removal of a portion of the play where the ruler is deposed and murdered. Essex and the man convicted of arranging the performance are executed

1637 – The First American Book Banning

Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan was harshly critical of the puritans, so they banned it. Morton had established his own community outside Plymouth, Ma-Re Mount (later called Merrymount), where the puritans accused him of “dancing and frisking together” with Native Americans. The Puritans chopped down his celebratory Maypole and banished him to an island off New Hampshire. His book further aggravated them, giving their leaders nicknames like “Captaine Shrimp” and denouncing their genocide of the Indigenous population. Plymouth’s governor called it “an infamous and scurrilous book against many god and chief men of the country, full of lies and slanders and fraught with profane calumnies against their names and persons and the ways of God.”

1807 – Thomas Bowdler Publishes ‘The Family Shakespeare’

Nearly 200 years after Shakespeare’s death, Thomas Bowdler published a family-friendly version of his works that eliminated words “which cannot with propriety be allowed in a family.” Bowdler’s name became synonymous with censorship. To bowdlerize means to remove material deemed offensive or improper from a text.

1921 – Ulysses Banned for Being “Obscene”

Deemed immoral upon its initial, serialized, publication, James Joyce’s iconic tome scandalized censorship boards around the world. At a U.S. trial in 1921 the text was declared obscene and, as a result, Ulysses was effectively banned in the United States. Throughout the 1920s, the United States Postal Service burned copies of the novel.

1921 – PEN International Founded in London

PEN (originally short for Poets, Essayists, and Novelists) was founded in London in 1921 to promote friendship and international co-operation among writers everywhere, and to defend literature and free expression wherever they are threatened. The first PEN Club was founded by Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, with John Galsworthy as its first President. Its first members included Joseph Conrad, Elizabeth Craig, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells.

1925 – Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial in Tennessee

The famous “monkey trial” followed the state of Tennessee’s criminal action against high school teacher John T. Scopes for violating the state’s Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools. Scopes was convicted and fined. Although his conviction was overturned on a technicality, other states adopted similar laws, and the theory of human evolution virtually disappeared from American high school biology textbooks until the 1960s.

1926 – Ireland Establishes Committee on Evil Literature

Following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, a Committee on Evil Literature was appointed in 1926. Books could be banned if they were considered to be indecent or obscene, as could newspapers whose content relied too much on crime, and works that promoted the “unnatural” prevention of conception or that advocated abortion. Other examples of “obscene” literature submitted to the committee ranged from photographs of dancers to advertisements for hair removal cream.

1931 – China Bans Alice in Wonderland

Banned in the province of Hunan, China, in 1931 for its portrayal of anthropomorphized animals acting on the same level of complexity as human beings. The censor, General Ho Chien, believed that attributing human language to animals was an insult to humans. He feared that the book would teach children to regard humans and animals on the same level, which would be “disastrous.”

1932 – First PEN President Awarded Nobel Prize

John Galsworthy, PEN’s first president and champion of free expression, receives the Nobel Prize for Literature. Unable to attend the ceremony due to illness, he dies six months later. In a final act of literary philanthropy, Galsworthy leaves his Nobel Prize money to PEN.

May 10, 1933 – Germany Burns Books. A LOT of Books

On this night, in most university towns in Germany, nationalist students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.” Sudents threw “un-German” books into the bonfires with great joyous ceremony, band-playing, songs, “fire oaths”, and incantations. The students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books. By the end of WWII, Nazi Germany will have destroyed an estimated 100 million books across occupied Europe.

May 25, 1933 – German PEN Expelled Following PEN American Resolution

British novelist H. G. Wells, who became PEN’s president in 1933, led a campaign against the burning of books by the Nazis. German PEN failed to protest and tried to prevent exiled German writer Ernst Toller from speaking at the conference. Following a motion put forward by Henry Seidal Canby and the PEN American Center, German PEN had its membership withdrawn. ‘If German PEN has been reconstructed in accordance with nationalistic ideas,’ a statement from PEN read, ‘it must be expelled.’

1930s – The Hays Code Regulates Movie Production

As censors take note of the burgeoning film industry, Will H. Hays, a Presbyterian elder, was made president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and created guidelines that discouraged showing sex, drugs, and homosexuality, among other things. The Hollywood Production Code is popularly known as the Hays Code and lasts until the 1960s.

1937 – Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men Published

A brief but powerful piece of depression-era fiction, Of Mice and Men is about friendship, loneliness, the comfort of shared dreams, and the cruelty of a world in which they can never be realized. The novella has been banned from various US public and school libraries or curricula for allegedly “promoting euthanasia”, “condoning racial slurs”, being “anti-business”, containing profanity, and generally containing “vulgar” and “offensive language.”

1939 – The Destruction of Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra Catalan Library by Franco’s Troops

In 1939, shortly after the surrendering of Barcelona to Nationalist forces, Franco’s troops burned the entire library of Pompeu Fabra, the main author of the normative reform of contemporary Catalan language, while shouting “¡Abajo la inteligencia!” (Down with intelligentsia!).

1949 – PEN Recognized at the United Nations

PEN looked very different at the end of World War II. The original concept behind its creation as a club welcoming writers regardless of race, religion or creed had been fractured by reality. New groups of writers in exile had also been established in London and New York during the war.In 1949, following the passage of a resolution introduced by the PEN American Centre, PEN acquired consultative status at the United Nations as ‘representative of the writers of the world’.

1949 – Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four Published

Undoubtedly one of the 20th century’s most influential pieces of literature, the prescience of which becomes more evident with each passing year, George Orwell’s tale of a dystopian society of censorship, surveillance, and shadowy governmental control introduced the world to the concept of ‘Big Brother.’ Sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four increased by up to 7,000% within the first week of the 2013 NSA mass surveillance leaks.

1950s – McCarthy-Era Red Scare

After World War II, America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union drove a nationwide Red Scare that culminated in anti-communist witch hunts at congressional hearings led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) and others.  In the film industry, more than 300 actors, writers, and directors were denied work through the informal Hollywood blacklist, which prompted some to go into exile.

1953 – Publication of Fahrenheit 451 Against Backdrop of McCarthyism

Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel presents a future American society where books are outlawed and firemen burn down any house that contains them. Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 because of his concerns at the time (during the McCarthy era in which the Senator produced a list of “communist” books to be confiscated and destroyed) about censorship and the threat of book burning in the U.S. For many years the book was published only in in a censored version.

1954 – Comics Code Authority Established in US

The Comics Code, drawn up by perhaps the toughest censorship authority in America for a time, was written in 1954 as an answer to a nationwide anti-comics movement. This was instigated by angry parents during a boom in graphic horror comics, and fueled by psychologist Dr Frederic Wertham’s 1953 book Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed comics for “different kinds of maladjustment” in young minds. Soon, 75% of comics publishers were out of business.

1955 – Lolita Seized by British Customs

Perhaps the most famous of all modern literary obscenity controversies, the war on Nabokov’s opus rages to this very day. Upon its initial release, the editor of London’s Sunday Telegraph, John Gordon, called it and “sheer unrestrained pornography.” British Customs officers were then instructed by a panicked Home Office to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom.

1957 – Howl Obscenity Trial Ends in Verdict of “Not Obscene”

Howl contains many references to illicit drugs and sexual practices, both heterosexual and homosexual. On June 3 Shig Murao, the bookstore manager, was arrested for selling Howl to an undercover police officer. City Lights Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was subsequently arrested for publishing the book. At the obscenity trial, nine literary experts testified on the poem’s behalf. Supported by the ACLU, Ferlinghetti won the case when the poem was declared to have “redeeming social importance.” From 1970-1996, Ginsberg had a long-term affiliation with PEN American Center, working actively to defend free expression.

1960 – PEN Writers in Prison Committee Established

By the 1950s, PEN members began discussing the idea of a committee to examine cases of writers imprisoned or persecuted for their work and opinions. The Writers in Prison Committee came into being as a result, in April 1960. Despite – or perhaps because of – the Cold War’s polarizing effect on the world, PEN’s influence spread internationally.

1960 – Lady Chatterley’s Lover Goes on Trial in UK

First printed privately in Florence in 1928, the book could not be published openly in its entirety in the U.K. until 1960. When the unexpurgated version was finally published in Britain by Penguin, the publishing house was brought to trial under a recently passed obscenity law. The book and ensuing trial provoked a storm of media attention and public interest and the subsequent not-guilty verdict resulted in a far greater degree of freedom for publishing explicit material in the U.K.

1963 – El Señor Presidente, the first modern ‘Dictator Novel’, published after thirteen years of censorship

A landmark text in Latin American literature, Miguel Ángel Asturias’s El Señor Presidente explores the nature of political dictatorship and its effects on society. the novel’s title character was inspired by the 1898–1920 presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera. Asturias began writing the novel in the 1920s and finished it in 1933, but the strict censorship policies of Guatemalan dictatorial governments delayed its publication for thirteen years.

1965 – Naked Lunch Ruled Obscene in Massachusetts 

William S. Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch, which chronicles his own drug addiction, is ruled pornographic in Massachusetts. In appeals, Norman Mailer, a PEN president, and Allen Ginsburg testified about the book’s literary merit.

1965 – Black Beauty Banned in Apartheid South Africa 

With more than fifty million copies sold worldwide, Black Beauty is one of the best-selling books of all time. It extols the virtues of kindness and respect. It was banned by the South African government during the Apartheid era because of the word ‘Black’ in the title.

1965 – John McGathern’s The Dark hints at Irish clerical abuse of children, decades before it is uncovered, and is banned

Set in the rural north west of Ireland, The Dark concerns itself with themes of adolescence and guilty sexuality. It was banned in Ireland for its alleged pornographic content and suggestions of sexual abuse by the clergy, and The Dark also led to McGahern being dismissed from his job as a teacher.

1967 – The Master and Margarita Published 26 Years After Mikhail Bulgakov’s Death

Spared death or disappearance by Stalin’s bizarre personal interest in his work, Bulgakov was nevertheless banned from publishing any of the satirical critiques that spoke with his truest voice. Chief among them was this anarchic tale of the Devil’s visit to a fervently atheistic, smotheringly bureaucratic Moscow. Not published until 26 years after the author’s death, this now-established classic gave the world that most memorable of anti-censorship mantras: “Manuscripts don’t burn.”

1966 – Supreme Court Rules in Memoirs vs. Massachusetts 

In a case involving John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, also known as Fanny Hill, the Supreme Court ruled the book was not obscene, citing the obscenity test established in Roth v. United States (1957) that an obscene work must be “utterly without redeeming social value.” 

1967 – PEN President Arthur Miller Helps Free Wole Soyinka From Prison

In 1967, under the presidency of American playwright Arthur Miller, PEN appealed to Nigeria on behalf of playwright Wole Soyinka, who had been marked for execution by the country’s head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, during the civil war over Biafran secession. The letter was conveyed from PEN to Gowon, who noted the name of its author and asked if he was the same man who had married Marilyn Monroe. When assured that he was, Gowan released the prisoner. Soyinka went on to win the Nobel Prize.

1968 – Iconic Czech Playwright and Political Dissident Václav Havel has Plays Banned

A deeply politically engaged writer and activist, following his involvement with the suppressed Prague Spring in 1968 Havel’s plays were banned from the theatre world in his own country, and he was unable to leave Czechoslovakia to see any foreign performances of his works. In the years following the 1968 Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia his writings and political activities landed him in prison many times.

1968 – Supreme Court Strikes Down Law Banning Teaching Evolution 

In Epperson v. Arkansas, the Supreme Court strikes down an Arkansas law that criminalized the teaching of evolution in public schools. The court finds that the law violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which holds that government “may not be hostile to any religion or to the advocacy of nonreligion; and it may not aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory against another or even against the militant opposite.”

1970 – Mississippi Bans Sesame Street

The integrated cast of Sesame Street, which debuted in 1969, became the target of complaints in Mississippi. The state’s commission for educational television agreed to ban in the show in May 1970, but reversed the decision 22 days later.

1973 – Supreme Court Outlines the Miller Test

In Miller v. California, the Supreme Court establishes a standard for what constitutes obscenity. Material can only be deemed ‘obscene’ if it meets three criteria outlined in the Miller test, which asks if the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that a work taken as a whole

  • appeals to prurient interest
  • depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and
  • lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

1980 – Argentina’s Last Dictatorship Censors, then Burns

On this day, in the middle of what would become known as Argentina’s Last Dictatorship, more than a million-and-a-half books from the Latin American Publishing Center, which had been intended to spread reading and literature to a wider audience in and around the capital, were first censored and then ultimately destroyed by fire on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

1982 – U.S Supreme Court Protects Slaughterhouse-Five

In 1982, having been deemed unsuitable and banned by a number of school boards in the U.S, a sharply divided Supreme Court found in Island Trees School District v. Pico that students’ First Amendment rights were violated when Slaughterhouse-Five and eight other titles were removed from junior and senior high school libraries. The Island Trees (NY) School District School Board removed the books in 1976 because they were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.”

1982 – Banned Books Week Begins

To draw attention to the censorship of books, organizers of the American Booksellers Association’s BookExpo in New York put 500 books in padlocked metal cages. Together with the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and the National Association of College Stores, they create banned book week.

1985 – London Schools Ban The Tale of Peter Rabbit

The Inner London Education Council bans Beatrix Potter’s 1902 classic The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny from all London schools. The council objected that the books showed only “middle-class rabbits” with “too much privilege.” 

1987 – PEN American Center Establishes Freedom to Write Award

Administered by PEN American Center and originally underwritten by PEN trustee Barbara Goldsmith, the Freedom to Write Award honors writers anywhere in the world who have fought courageously in the face of adversity for the right to freedom of expression. 

1988 – Russian PEN (finally) Formed

Arthur Miller travelled to the USSR to meet with the Union of Soviet Writers, and was told bluntly that Soviet writers wanted to join PEN but for one major obstacle: the Charter. Miller made it clear that altering the Charter to suit the Soviets was not up for discussion, adding that the vision it articulated was what united PEN worldwide. He nevertheless made sure that dialogue across the East–West divide was kept open; but it wasn’t until 1988 that Russian PEN was finally formed.

1989 – Iran’s Ayatollah Issues Fatwa Calling for Salman Rushdie’s Death

In what has been described as “the most significant event in postwar literary history,” in 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwā ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie following the publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses. The book angered many muslims around the world who saw it as blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad. This outpouring of rage resulted in numerous killings, attempted killings, and even bombings. Rushdie himself was forced into hiding for almost ten years as a result. PEN American Center and PEN Centers around the world rallied to Rushdie’s defense. Rushdie later became president of PEN America and founded the PEN World Voices Festival. 

1991 – Daddy’s Roommate deals with the issue of homosexual parents for young readers

Along with Heather Has Two Mommies, Daddy’s Roommate was one of the first children’s books to portray homosexuality in a positive light. Consequently, the book became one of the most challenged books, with the American Library Association listing it at no.2 in their list of the 100 most challenged books from 1990-1999. It became a point of discussion in the 2008 US Election when it was alleged that, in 1995, Sarah Palin, then a councilwoman in Alaska, complained that the book did not belong in a public library.

1992 – Sarajevo Suffers the Largest Single Book-Burning History

On this day the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo was firebombed and destroyed by Serbian nationalists. Almost all the contents of the library were destroyed, including more than 1.5 million books that included 4,000 rare books, 700 manuscripts, and 100 years of Bosnian newspapers and journals. These numbers make the event the single largest book burning in the history of human civilization.

1995 – Ken Saro-Wiwa: A Hero Silenced

Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian writer and activist who led a nonviolent campaign against environmental degradation of the land and waters of Ogoniland by the operations of the multinational oil industry. He was also an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government, which he viewed as reluctant to enforce environmental regulations. Despite an extensive international campaign led by PEN Centres around the world, Saro-Wiwa was executed by a military tribunal along with 8 other activists, having been convicted on widely discredited inciting murder charges.

1997 – The God of Small Things Goes on Trial in India for Obscenity 

The God of Small Things earned the young Indian novelist Arundhati Roy millions of dollars in royalties, international fame, and the 1997 Booker Prize. It also earned her an obscenity trial. In 1997, she was summoned to India’s Supreme Court to defend against a claim that the book’s brief and occasional sex scenes, involving a Christian woman and a low-caste Hindu servant, corrupted public morals.

1997 – Harry Potter Is Published

The first book in J.K Rowling’s fantasy series about wizarding school introduced a series that became the most frequently challenged in U.S. libraries from 2000-2009, according to the American Library Association. Complaints objected to the books’ use of magic and witchcraft, or “occult/Satanism and anti-family themes.”

2003 – Iraq’s National Library Destroyed During 2003 Invasion of Baghdad

Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the country’s national library and the Islamic library in central Baghdad were burned and destroyed. The national library housed rare volumes and documents from as far back as the 16th century, including entire royal court records and files from the period when Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire. The destroyed Islamic library of Baghdad included one of the oldest surviving copies of the Qur’an.

2005 – Belarus Free Theatre Established

BFT, an underground theatre collective operating in secret in one of the most artistically restrictive countries in the world, aims to use art to “break through stereotypes of the Belarusian population that are imposed by the ideological system of Belarusian dictatorial regime.” Rehearsals and performances (always free of charge for the public) are normally held secretly in small private apartments and almost all of the group’s members have spent time behind bars.

2006 – The King Never Smiles Ban Demonstrates Extreme Nature of Thailand’s Literary Censorship Policies

An unauthorized biography of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej by Paul M. Handley, a freelance journalist who lived and worked as a foreign correspondent in Thailand, The King Never Smiles was unceremonously banned by Thai censors before it was even published. In October 2011, Thai-born American Joe Gordon was sentenced to two and a half years in prison by a Bangkok judge for defaming the royal family by translating sections of the book into Thai and posting them online.

2006 – Russian Journalist Anna Politkovskaya Murdered

In October 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a high-profile Russian author and journalist for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who had received death threats for her reporting on the war in Chechnya, was found murdered in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building. PEN International was at the forefront of efforts to bring her murderer(s) to account.

2007 – The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Published

A first-person narrative by Native American teenager Arnold Spirit Jr., also known as “Junior”, detailing his life on the Spokane Indian Reservation and his decision to go to an all-white public high school, off-reservation. The celebrated Young Adult novel was the center of several controversies, having been banned in various U.S schools for its descriptions of alcoholism, poverty, bullying; references to masturbation and physical arousal; as well as for the tragic deaths of characters and the use of profanity.

2013 – Islamist Rebels Destroy Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu

Islamist rebels in Mali destroyed thousands of irreplaceable manuscripts in Jan 2013. As the French and Malian armies arrived in Timbuktu where the rebels were holed up, the insurgents set fire to numerous buildings, including two archives of manuscripts dating back to the 1200s. These documents, almost none of which had been digitized or recorded in any other way, covered the medieval history of sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the books had never been translated and their information is lost forever.

2013 – Marjane Satrapi’s Graphic Novel Persepolis Challenged in Chicago Public Schools

Chicago Public Schools seek to remove Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis from shelves. Following a backlash, the school system only removes the book from the middle school and high school curriculum, and allows the text to be taught in grade 11.

2014 – Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple challenged in North Carolina.

The two books were challenged in an Advanced Placement Literature class in Wake County School District. The books now require parental consent for students to read, although they remain available in the school’s library.

2022 – Salman Rushdie Is Attacked

On August 12, Rushdie is attacked and stabbed up to 10 times on stage at an event at the Chautaqua Institution in New York. He is put on a ventilator, with damage to his organs and loss of vision in one eye. In accepting the PEN Centenary Courage Award in 2023, Rushdie proclaimed that those who rushed to his rescue showed true courage that day.


A version of this timeline was originally posted in 2014 and has been updated.