Then and now: Banning Like it’s 1981

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, First Amendment, LGBTQIA+

December tends to be a time of introspection as we look back over the past year. The last year, especially the last few months, has seen a dramatic increase in book challenges nationwide. This is alarming, as it should be; however, the timing of such an organized push repeats history with the same frequency as social challenges and advancements do.The current wave of attempted censorship is a modern remake of a 1980s special that should have been left in the past. 

To understand the censorship wave of 1981, we have to look at the social changes that took place in the 1970s that spawned panic in conservative America. The 1970s saw schools become more secular, the women’s liberation movement, the gay rights movement, the continued civil rights movement, the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973, and fear of the loss of the traditional family unit. With these supposed attacks on the morals of the country, the Moral Majority was officially formed in 1979, giving localized conservative factions a national figurehead to rally behind and take marching orders from. While the Moral Majority has officially dissolved, their influence still can be felt in conservative politics to this day.

Groups based in Texas, Utah, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania threw their hat into the fight to “curate” what children have access to in public spaces. The cry of, “we’re not censors,” echoed from multiple parents; the disconnect is staggering–that is exactly what they were. Mobilized by mailing lists, and using talking points supplied by the Moral Majority and their ilk, parents flocked to schools and public libraries demanding the removal of books that, according to them, infringe on their rights as parents to filter what their children have access to in public spaces. More often than not, the parents objecting had not read the materials they’re protesting; if they had, it is only cherry-picked parts taken out of context to prove their point.

If any, or all, of this sounds familiar, it should. Today’s challenges primarily focus on LGBTQIA+ and racial issues, but titles considered anti-police made the most challenged list from 2020 as well. A quick look at the headlines the last five years show similar hot button topics from the 1980s: LGBTQIA+ rights, racial injustice, women’s rights, and recognizing the complex structures of families. The censorship playbook and reasons for banning play a similar tune, like a badly made remix that sounds just as awful on your favorite streaming service as it did on 8-track in 1981. 

Some nuances in this iteration are new. Technology has increased the reach, spread, and threat levels of organizational groups that replaced the Moral Majority. Physical mailing lists have been replaced with websites, email, and social media, instantaneously reaching further than anyone in the 80’s could have dreamed. The digital age also brings about the very real threat of doxing, which adds additional levels of risk to those who fight to keep access.

Encouragingly, it is the children impacted by the bannings that are pushing back against the censorship attempts almost as loudly as the access advocates. Students from New Jersey took their challenge to the Supreme Court in 1982. Their case, Board of Education v. Pico, resulted in a split decision that determined school boards technically could not pull titles to limit the diversity of ideas, but they could remove them if the content was “vulgar” or “educationally unsuitable,” leaving plenty of room for challenges to continue to this day. Recent challenges in Canyons School District  in Utah spurred several students to voice their dissent against both the bannings proposed and the school board’s push to change their challenging rules to make it easier to remove books in the future. Several students pointed out to the school board how their decisions would impact them. One student’s powerful personal story culminated in calling the board to task for pulling material that made adults, not the children reading them, uncomfortable: clear, loud words from the youth directly impacted by those who would ban something they have not actually read.

In the last forty years, we have seen some incredible leaps and bounds in access, civil rights, and access. Unfortunately, there are people who want to drag us backwards, and those who believe in the importance of access and diverse voices have a long fight ahead of us. 


  • I was in my 20s in the 1980s. I well remember the events you are referencing. I felt a call to action then, and worked against the efforts of those who would ban material. Now I just feel tired of ridiculous censorship attempts. Thank God you and others do not.

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