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Case Study

Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982)

The Facts

At a conference sponsored by Parents of New York United (PONYU) in September 1975, three members of the Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26, in New York received lists of books that PONYU considered "objectionable." The board members discovered that nine of the books listed were in their district's high school library and one of the books was in the junior high school library. At a February 1976 meeting of the superintendent of schools and principals, the board gave an "unofficial direction" to remove the ten books from the library shelves and deliver them to the Board. After their action was publicized, the board appointed a "Book Review Committee" composed of four parents and four school staff members. In July, the committee recommended:

  • The Fixer, Laughing Boy, Black Boy, Go Ask Alice and Best Short Stories by Negro Writers be returned to the library shelves. The Naked Ape and Down These Mean Streets be removed from the library shelves.
  • Slaughterhouse Five be made available to students only with parental approval.

The committee could not agree what to do with Soul On Ice and A Hero Ain't Nothin' But A Sandwich, and they took no position on A Reader for Writers. (Not all committee members had read the book.) Board members - who themselves had read only excerpts from the books - ordered principals in the school district to remove eight of the works in question from district junior high and high school libraries. (Laughing Boy was the only book the board agreed to return to library shelves; Black Boy could be obtained only with parental approval.) The reasons for banning the books varied, but most commonly cited were the presence of profanity and explicit discussions of sex, as well as the "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy …" nature of the writings. High school students Steven Pico, Jacqueline Gold, Glenn Yarris, Russell Rieger and junior high student Paul Sochinski brought action against the school board in District Court, alleging that the board's actions had denied them their rights to free expression under the First Amendment. The District Court ruled in favor of the school board. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision. The school board then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.

The question
Did the Board of Education's decision to ban certain books from its junior high and high school libraries, based on their content, violate the First Amendment's freedom-of-speech protections?

The assignment
After reviewing the facts and issues in this Supreme Court case, answer the question posed by this case. Select the judicial opinion with which you agree. You must give a thorough explanation for your viewpoint.
When you read the opinions of the justices, you will find double and single quotation marks. The information within single quotation marks is material cited by the writer from previous court decisions (precedents). Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982)

Opinion A
Justice William J. Brennan, author "… Does the First Amendment impose limitations upon [a local school board] to remove books from the Island Trees High School and Junior High? … As the case is presented to us, it does not involve textbooks, or indeed any books that Island Tree students would be required to read … the only books at issue in this case are library books, books that by their nature are optional rather than required reading … "… The Court has long recognized that local schools have broad discretion in the management of school affairs … federal courts should not ordinarily 'intervene in the resolution of conflicts which arise in the daily operation of school systems.' … We have also acknowledged that public schools are vitally important 'in the preparation of individuals for participation as citizens,' and as vehicles for 'inculcating fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic system.' We are therefore in full agreement … that local school boards must be permitted 'to establish and apply their curriculum in such a way as to transmit community values.' …"… At the same time, however, we have necessarily recognized that the discretion of the States and local school boards in matters of education must be exercised in a manner that comports with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment. … "… The First Amendment rights of students may be directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library. Our precedents have focused 'not only on the role of the First Amendment in fostering individual self-expression but also in its role in affording the public access to discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas.' … In keeping with this principle, we have held that in a variety of contexts 'the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas.' "… In sum, just as access to ideas makes it possible for citizens generally to exercise their rights of free speech and press in a meaningful manner, such access prepares students for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which they will soon be adult members. Of course, all First Amendment rights accorded to students must be construed 'in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.' … But the special characteristics of the school library make that environment appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students. "… A school library, no less than any other public library, is 'a place dedicated to quiet, to knowledge, and to beauty.' … 'Students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity, and understanding.' The school library is the principal locus of such freedom. … 'A student can literally explore the unknown, and discover areas of interest and thought not covered by the prescribed curriculum. … Th[e] student learns that a library is a place to test or expand upon ideas presented to him, in or out of the classroom.' …"… As noted earlier, nothing in our decision today affects in any way the discretion of a local school board to choose books to add to the libraries of their schools. Because we are concerned in this case with the suppression of ideas, our holding today affects only the discretion to remove books. In brief, we hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to 'prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'"Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982)

Opinion B
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justices Lewis F. Powell Jr., William H. Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor, authors "… The First Amendment, as with other parts of the Constitution, must deal with new problems in a changing world. In an attempt to deal with a problem in an area traditionally left to the states, … the Court [is] going beyond any prior holding under the First Amendment. … "… The states and local elected school boards should have the responsibility for determining the educational policy of the public schools. … School boards are uniquely local and democratic institutions. [They] have only one responsibility: the education of the youth of our country. Apart from health, no subject is closer to the hearts of parents than their children's education in those years. For these reasons, the governance of elementary and secondary education traditionally has been placed in the hands of a local board, responsible locally to the parents and citizens of the school district. … It is fair to say that no single agency of government at any level is closer to the people whom it serves than the typical school board. "… The decision as to the educational worth of a book is a highly subjective one. Judges rarely are as competent as school authorities to make this decision; nor are judges responsive to the parents and people of the school district. "… Although I would leave this educational decision to the duly constituted school board, I certainly would not require a school board to promote ideas and values repugnant to a democratic society or to teach such values to children. "In different contexts and in different times, the destruction of written materials has been the symbol of despotism and intolerance. But the removal of nine vulgar or racist books from a high school library by a concerned local school board does not raise this specter. "… 'The importance of public school in the preparation of individuals for participation as citizens, and in the preservation of the values of which our society rests, had long been recognized by our decisions.' Public schools fulfill the vital role of teaching students the basic skills necessary to function in our society and of 'inculcating fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system.' The idea that such students have a right of access, in the school, to information other than that thought by their educators to be necessary is contrary to the very nature of inculcative education. … "… Students are not denied books by their removal from a school library. The books may be borrowed from a public library, read at a university library, purchased at a bookstore, or loaned by a friend. … Indeed, following the removal from the school library of the books at issue in this case, the local public library put all nine on display for public inspection. Their contents were fully accessible to any inquisitive students. …

"… In this case, the students' rights of free speech and expression were not infringed, and no ideas were suppressed. … 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 so long as it does not also interfere with the right of students to read the material and to discuss it. … I do not personally agree with the board's actions with respect to some of the books in question here, but it is not the function of the courts to make the decisions that have been properly relegated to the elected members of the school boards. It is the school board that must determine educational suitability, and it does so in this case."

Last updated: Sunday, February 7, 2016 | 15:48:50