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

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Editors: A Walton Litz , Daniel E. Brannen, Jr. , Elizabeth Shaw , and Richard Clay Hanes
Document Type: Case overview
Length: 1,319 words
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Island Trees Union Free School District Board of Education v. Pico 1982

Petitioners: Island Trees Union Free School District Board of Education, et al.

Respondents: Steven A. Pico, et al.

Petitioners' Claim: That removing vulgar and racist books from public school libraries does not violate the First Amendment.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioners: George W. Lipp, Jr.

Chief Lawyer for Respondents: Alan H. Levine

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: Warren E. Burger, Sandra Day O'Connor, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist

Date of Decision: June 25, 1982

Decision: Removing books from public school libraries because of their political or social ideas violates the freedom of speech.

Significance: Island Trees limits the ability of public schools to remove offensive books from their libraries.

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Richard Ahrens, Frank Martin, and Patrick Hughes were members of the Board of Education of the Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 in New York. In September 1975, they attended a conference sponsored by Parents of New York United ("PONYU"). PONYU was a group of conservative parents that was concerned about education in New York's public schools. At the conference, Ahrens, Martin, and Hughes got lists of books that PONYU considered to be inappropriate for public school students.

When they returned from the conference, the board members learned that their high school library had nine of the books on the lists, and the junior high school library had one. The books included Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes. Some of the books contained graphic descriptions of sexual intercourse. One criticized President George Washington for owning slaves. Some of the books said hateful things about Jesus Christ and Jews.

Sidebar: HideShow


The 1994 book, Banned in the U.S.A., offers a list of the fifty books most often banned or challenged in the 1990s. Some of the books included in the top five of this list are Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck (1937), challenged mainly on the basis of the profanity contained in it; The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger (1951); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (1885), for its racial epithets; and The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (1974), because it portrays school and church in a negative light.

A significant number of books on the list have won Newbery, National Book, Pulitzer, or even Nobel prizes: A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The board ordered the school principals to remove the nine books from the libraries so the board could study them. In a press release, thePage 228  |  Top of Article board said the books were "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy." (Anti-Semitic means hateful of Jews.) The board said its duty was to protect students from moral dangers in books just like it protected them from physical and medical dangers.

A short time later, the board formed a committee of parents and school personnel to study the books. The committee's job was to determine if the books had any educational value. The committee recommended that the board return five of the nine books to the libraries, and make one more available to students with parental permission. The board, however, rejected this recommendation, returned only one book to the high school library, and made one other available with parental permission only.

Fighting censorship

Richard A. Pico and three other students filed a lawsuit against the Island Trees Board of Education in federal district court. The students said the board removed the books not because they lacked educational value, but because they offended the board's social, political, and moral tastes. The students argued that removing books for those reasons violated the First Amendment freedom of speech. The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging [limiting] the freedom of speech." State and local governments, including public school boards, must obey the freedom of speech under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The district court granted summary judgment for the board, which means it ruled in favor of the board without holding a trial. The court said it would be unwise for it to interfere with a decision made by the Island Trees Board of Education. It also said removing "vulgar" books from public school libraries does not violate the freedom of speech.

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the district court's decision. It said Pico and the other students deserved a trial to force the Board of Education to give a good reason for removing the books from the libraries. The Island Trees Board of Education took the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Read all about it

In a close decision, the Supreme Court voted 5–4 in favor of Pico and the students. Writing for the Court, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., said thePage 229  |  Top of Article students deserved a trial to determine if the board's reason for removing the books violated the freedom of speech.

Justice Brennan said public schools are allowed to prepare students to be good citizens by teaching them good morals. Schools, however, cannot violate the First Amendment while doing so. QuotingTinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School, Justice Brennan said students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Sidebar: HideShow


Burning books has been a popular form of censorship. America's first book burning happened in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1650. That year William Pynchon, founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, wrote a religious pamphlet called The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption. In it he challenged part of the Puritan religion as taught by the ministers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston.

When the book arrived in Boston from London, where it was published, it caused a scandal. Puritan authorities confiscated as many copies as they could find. The General Court, which served as both the legislature and court in Massachusetts, condemned the book and ordered it to be burned. The burning occurred on October 20, 1650 in the Boston marketplace, with only four copies escaping the fire.

The General Court ordered Pynchon to appear before it to take back his offensive remarks. Pynchon only retracted some statements and so was sent back to England. There he wrote more religious texts, including two expanded versions of his controversial book. Pynchon died in England on October 29, 1662.

Justice Brennan said the freedom of speech was designed to allow Americans to discuss, debate, and share information and ideas. Authors could not share information in books if people were not allowed to read them. That means the freedom of speech also includes the right to receivePage 230  |  Top of Article information and ideas. "[S]tudents must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding."

Justice Brennan decided that when a school removes books from the library because it doesn't like the political or social ideas in them, it violates the right to receive information. Removing books because they are vulgar or lack educational value, however, is proper for teaching students to be good citizens with good morals. Pico and the other students, then, deserved a trial to determine the real reason the Island Trees Board of Education removed the books from the libraries.

Who rules school?

Four justices dissented, meaning they disagreed with the Court's decision. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote a dissenting opinion. He said the question in the case was whether local schools should be run "by elected school boards, or by federal judges and teenage pupils." Justice Burger strongly urged that school boards have the final say about what books to include in public school libraries. He disagreed that the freedom of speech includes a right to receive information. Warren said school boards are allowed to remove vulgar books that may prevent the development of good morals.

Suggestions for further reading

Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of Speech. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, Inc., 1990.

Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Hentoff, Nat. The Day They Came to Arrest the Book: A Novel. New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1982.

King, David C. The Right to Speak Out. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Noble, William. Bookbanning in America. Middlebury: Paul S. Ericksson, 1990.

Pascoe, Elaine. Freedom of Expression: The Right to Speak Out in America. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

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Steele, Philip. Censorship. New York: Discovery Books, 1992.

Steele, Philip, Philip Skele, and Penny Clarke. Freedom of Speech? New York: Franklin Watts, 1997.

aylor, C.L. Censorship. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.

Zeinert, Karen. Free Speech: From Newspapers to Music Lyrics. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1995.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3457000054