Restricted Access: The American History of Book Banning

Censorship and book bans are nothing new in American life. In the 19th century, it was the federal Comstock laws barring the delivery and distribution of “every obscene, lewd, or lascivious” book. Today, books that highlight race, gender, or sexuality are being yanked from public shelves around the country. This humanities discussion explores the history of book banning and obscenity laws in the United States.


Video Highlight

  • 10:31 Listen to André De Shields read an excerpt from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved.
  • 26:05 Listen to Amy Werbel discuss the censorship efforts of Anthony Comstock in the early 1900s and the resistance to them led by figures such as Margaret Sanger.
  • 34:45 Listen to Farah Jasmine Griffin discuss the banning of Toni Morrison’s books and Morrison’s long history of anti-censorship work.
  • 41:24 Listen to Whitney Strub discuss book bans of LGBTQ books and how queerphobic bias has shaped the history of obscenity law.
  • 51:23 Listen to Laurie Halse Anderson discuss writing stories that her teen readers can relate to as they deal with their confusing stage of life, and how censorship efforts have gotten worse in more recent years.

From the archives

Primary Sources

Further Reading

Today, books in the US are under profound attack. They are disappearing from library shelves, being challenged in droves, being decreed off limits by school boards, legislators, and prison authorities. And everywhere, it is the books that have long fought for a place on the shelf that are being targeted. Books by authors of color, by LGBTQ+ authors, by women. Books about racism, sexuality, gender, history. PEN America pushes back against the banning of books and the intolerance, exclusion, and censorship which undergirds it.

PEN America tracks book bans in libraries and classrooms across America in our Index of School Book Bans, updated weekly.

Contributing Scholars:

Ali Velshi, host of Velshi on MSNBC

Laurie Halse Anderson, author of numerous novels, including Speak and Shout

Farah Jasmine Griffin, Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University

Whitney Strub, Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University

Amy Werbel, Professor, History of Art, Fashion Institute of Technology

With opening reading by André De Shields, Tony Award-winning actor