Censoring “Harry Potter”: The occasional need to reconcile freedom of speech and freedom of religion

By Harvey Silverglate

The act of censorship is usually seen as a direct affront to the First Amendment, buts it’s not always that clear and simple. The reason, of course, is that the amendment has several clauses, and at times some of them are in tension with one another, if not in seeming conflict.

Consider today’s curious report in The Boston Globe that the pastor of St. Joseph’s School in Wakefield, Rev. Ron Barker, ordered the removal of the Harry Potter series of books from the school library’s shelves. At first, it seems to be a slam-dunk case of unconstitutional censorship. Once a book is selected by the relevant school authorities for placement in a school library, the Supreme Court has ruled, there has to be a pretty good reason for administrators to remove it. The First Amendment, after all, protects the freedom of speech and press.

However, the First Amendment also protects the “free exercise” of religion, and if an administrator at private parochial school decides, as Rev. Barker reportedly has, that the witchcraft and sorcery themes of J. K. Rowling’s now-classic series are inimical to Catholic religious teachings, and that, as one parent reported, “he said it’s his job to protect the weak and the strong” from undue literary influences, then the First Amendment actually protects that act of censorship. Besides, the First Amendment arguments are moot in this case anyway, because the constitution protects only against censorship by public officials, and that doesn’t cover any private school, whether religious or not.

And so, in this instance, the First Amendment, if it were even applicable, actually protects the power of Rev. Barker to keep the students from reading the Potter books in school. Of course, having the power to censor does not mean that it is wise, or even effective, to do so. Indeed, Rev. Barker could have saved himself the trouble, since it’s obvious that the students will read the books elsewhere if that’s what they want to do. There’s one surefire way to deal with official censorship – by unofficial reading outside of school.

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