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Free Speech, Banned Books, and Civil Discourse

The United States Supreme Court in Island Trees School District v. Pico in 1982 held that libraries are places for “voluntary inquiry” and concluded that the school board’s “absolute discretion” over the classroom did not extend to the library for that reason. Recently, students in Duluth, Minnesota found out that classic books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird were being pulled from the shelves. Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction of the Duluth Public Schools District, stated that this was done because, “The feedback that we’ve received is that it makes many students feel uncomfortable.”

This lesson explores the decision by the Duluth Public Schools District to remove these books from their curriculum and how that decision compares to the actions taken by the Island Trees School District in Island Trees School District v. Pico. It also asks students to examine how these actions affect civil discourse in America.


  • Students will analyze the Supreme Court case of Island Trees School District v. Pico.
  • Students will compare and contrast Island Trees School District v. Pico with the recent actions taken by the Duluth Public Schools District.
  • Students will discuss how these decisions of school districts affect civil discourse and learning, and they will identify possible solutions.


Warm-up Activity: 5 min

Have students look over the Which Books Were Banned? list below. Ask students to take a few minutes to go through the handout and identify which books they feel were banned and which ones were not banned.

  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K Rowling
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Once students are done, you can use the Teacher Resource on Banned Books list below to reveal that all of the books on that list were banned and why they were banned.

  • To Kill A Mockingbird: Harper Lee’s great American tome. For some educators, the Pulitzer-prize winning book is one of the greatest texts teens can study in an American literature class. Others have called it a degrading, profane and racist work that “promotes white supremacy.” The book was briefly banned from multiple school districts in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was briefly banned from a Texas school district in 2006 citing parent concerns over wizardry and “satanic” subtexts.
  • Fahrenheit 451: After a year ban, Venado Middle school in Irvine, CA utilized an expurgated version of the text in which all the “hells” and “damns” were blacked out. Other complaints have said the book went against objectors religious beliefs.
  • Catcher in the Rye: Young Holden, favorite child of the censor. Frequently removed from classrooms and school libraries across America because it is claimed to be “unacceptable,” “obscene,” “blasphemous,” “negative,” “foul,” “filthy,” and “undermines morality.” And to think Holden always thought “people never notice anything.”
  • 1984: 1984 by George Orwell has been challenged numerous times on the grounds that it contains communist and sexual content. This book was challenged in Jackson County, Florida (1981) because the novel is “pro-communist and contains explicit sexual matter.”
  • Catch-22: A school board in Strongsville, OH refused to allow the book to be taught in high school English classrooms in 1972. It also refused to consider Cat’s Cradle as a substitute text and removed both books from the school library. The issue eventually led to a 1976 District Court ruling overturning the ban in Minarcini v. Strongsville.
  • Moby Dick: A Texas school district banned the book from its Advanced English class lists because it “conflicted with their community values” in 1996. Community values are frequently cited in discussions over challenged books by those who wish to censor them.

Activity 1: 5-10 minutes

Distribute Handout B: Island Trees School District v. Pico.  Have students read the details of the case and the final decision by the Supreme Court. Ask students to discuss (as a large group or in small groups) the following questions:

  1. Why did a New York community group ask for nine books to be removed from the school library?
  2. Why did Steven Pico and four other students object to the books’ removal?
  3. How did the Supreme Court rule, and why?
  4. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Burger said, “If the school can set curriculum, select teachers, and determine what books to purchase for the school library, it surely can decide which books to discontinue or remove from the school library.” Do you agree?

Activity 2: 5-10 minutes

Distribute Handout C: Excerpts, Chicago Tribune article: “Duluth school district drops ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ‘Huckleberry Finn’ over racial slurs.” Give students time to read and review. Ask students to discuss (as a large group or in small groups) the following questions:

  1. Why did the Duluth Public Schools District decide to remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird from their required reading list?
  2. Do you agree with the decision made by the school district? Why or why not?
  3. Do you see this as a violation of the First Amendment? Why or why not?
  4. Does this situation differ from the situation in Island Trees School District v. Pico?

Conclusion: 10 minutes

After you are finished comparing and contrasting, have students watch the video, “What is Civil Discourse?” As a class, discuss the following:

  1. Should a school be allowed to ban books it feels are inappropriate?
  2. How can the decision to ban certain books affect civil discourse in the classroom?
  3. What might some other possible positive solutions be for the Duluth Public Schools District in their approach to books they deem controversial?