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


With this case, school boards were constitutionally disabled from removing library books in order to deny access to ideas with which they disagreed for political reasons.

The Board of Education v. Pico was a case that raised many questions concerning the rights of students within the context of the First Amendment. The Constitution's First Amendment makes the United States different from all other countries by guaranteeing American citizens the right to feel, believe, and speak as they wish. One of the most controversial freedoms guaranteed to U.S. residents is the freedom of speech, detailed in the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause. This is not just the right for a person to say what he or she wants, but it has been extended, by the U.S. Supreme Court to mean that if the First Amendment guarantees a speaker's--or writer's--right to express individual ideas, then it follows that people are just as free to receive these ideas.

This concept clashes on occasion with a school board's responsibility to maintain and communicate community values. At the heart of the matter is the question of whether a school board has acted with the intention of communicating and protecting community values or its own beliefs. If the latter is the underlying motivation, there is a constitutional problem just as though a basically Democratic school board had banned any books voicing Republican doctrine, a Caucasian school board banned books about African Americans, or vice versa. In short, the U.S. Constitution forbids the official suppression of ideas, especially if the suppression is based on personal political views.

At the time of this controversy, Richard Ahrens was the president of the Board of Education of New York's Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26, Frank Martin was the vice president, and Patrick Hughes was among the board's members. They were some of the petitioners involved in this case, even though Pico, et al. originally brought the board to district court.

In September of 1975, Ahrens, Martin, and Hughes went to a conference sponsored by Parents of New York United (PONYU), a politically conservative group of parents who were having misgivings about New York State legislation regarding education. While at this conference, the three petitioners picked up lists of books that Ahrens called "objectionable," and Martin felt were "improper fare for school students." When it was determined that 11 of the listed books were in school libraries, the board "unofficially" directed the high school and junior high school principals to remove these books from the library shelves and take them to the board's offices so they could read them. Some of the books included were: Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris; Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver; and Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes.

When the board officials had these books removed from the library shelves, the press reported their actions. To justify the removal, the board sent out a press release explaining that these books were, "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy." The board felt that, "it is our duty, our moral obligation, to protect the children in our schools from this moral danger as surely as from physical and medical dangers."

Subsequently, the school board appointed a book review committee comprised of four school district parents and four Island Trees staff members, to read the books and recommend which should be kept in the library. Their criteria were "educational suitability," "good taste," "relevance," and "appropriateness to age and grade level."

The committee decided that the schools keep five of the books and remove two. As to the other four books, there were two that the committee could not agree on, one on which they took no position, and one that should be available with parental permission. The school board ignored the committee's decision and decided that the libraries would keep only one of the books, parental permission would be required for another, and the other nine would be removed. The board gave no reasons for its decisions.

Confronted with the school board's decision, several junior high and high school students brought suit against the school board to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. They alleged that the board's actions resulted from personal opinion as to the moral, political, and social suitability of these books, and the students' First Amendment rights were being violated. They wanted the court to declare that the board was acting unconstitutionally, have the board return the books to the libraries, and not to interfere with the use of these books in the schools.

The district court granted the school board a summary judgment, that is, they construed the school board's interpretation of these books as fact. Based on this premise, the district court ruled that the school board acted on its conservative views that these books were immoral, in bad taste, vulgar, etc., rather than personally held religious or political beliefs. Therefore, the school board had not violated the students' First Amendment rights.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the district court's judgment and sent the case back to be examined with a closer look at whether the students' First Amendment rights had been violated.

The Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals. Justice Brennan offered an opinion joined by Justices Marshall and Stevens and partially by Justice Blackmun. Justice White concurred with the judgment, but did not join in the opinion. Chief Justice Burger and Justices Rehnquist, O'Connor, and Powell dissented.

In essence, the Supreme Court agreed that the students' First Amendment rights were violated by the removal of these books because the school board was trying to suppress ideas they simply did not like. They seemed not to be acting out of a genuine concern for the educational suitability of the content of these books.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Island Trees Union Free School District Board of Education v. Pico - Significance, Related Cases