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Understanding Challenges to Books and Magazines

By Jaclyn Law and Alvin M. Schrader

Freedom to Read Week encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Every year, schools and libraries receive challenges to reading materials. Learn more about this issue with our quick guide.

1. What is a challenge?

A challenge is an attempt to censor, remove or restrict access to a publication so that people can’t get it at all or can’t get it easily. Publications are challenged in schools, libraries and courts and at borders between countries.

2. Why do people challenge books and magazines?

People challenge publications for many reasons. These are the most common:

  • sexually explicit content
  • age inappropriateness
  • depiction of violence
  • offensive language/profanity
  • LGBTQ content
  • obscenity
  • inaccuracy
  • nudity
  • insensitivity
  • sex education
  • sexism
  • religious viewpoint
  • racism
  • political viewpoint
  • anti-ethnicity
  • occult/witchcraft
  • hate

3. Who makes challenges?

Challenges often come from:

  • library patrons
  • parents and guardians
  • students
  • elected officials
  • educators
  • authors
  • library staff
  • customs agents
  • corporations

4. When is a challenge justified?

A challenge could be justified when:

  • a publication includes many spelling mistakes or significant grammatical errors.
  • the library staff overlook the characteristics of a publication. Sometimes, when deciding a publication’s classification and shelf location, the staff don’t notice the publisher’s recommended age level, or the publisher has misjudged the publication’s age appropriateness. This sometimes happens with DVDs.
  • the publication is plagiarized. An example is a book that is a compilation of Wikipedia articles.
  • the publication is hazardous. For example, an author claiming to be a health expert has lied about his or her expertise or credentials, and the book poses a health danger to readers.
  • the publication advocates sexual activity with a minor, or its dominant characteristic is the description for a sexual purpose of sexual activity with a minor.

5. What happens when a book or magazine is challenged?

A challenge could result in:

no change to the publication’s status

reclassification of the publication (such as moving it from a library’s children’s section to the adult section)

putting a warning label on the publication

restricted access to the publication

removal of the publication from a library collection or school curriculum

6. Why should we defend challenged materials?

Defending the freedom to read doesn’t mean you support sexism, racism, hatred, etc. Instead, you support people’s right to choose what they want to read and to make up their minds about the content. Banning or hiding controversial materials from the public interferes with intellectual freedom, which is an essential part of a democratic society.

7. What can I do?

Get involved! Visit freedomtoread.ca to learn more about intellectual freedom in Canada. Call out censorship when you see it. Attend a Freedom to Read Week event or organize your own. Follow the Book and Periodical Council on Facebook and Twitter (@Freedom_to_Read) to stay informed.


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Reprinted from Freedom to Read Kit 2018.