The School Library versus the School Board: An Exploration of the Book Banning Trend of the 1980s

By Amy Pelman and Beverly Lynch


While attempted book banning in school libraries continues to this day, a rash of book challenges occurred during the 1980s. Parents, students, and other stakeholders brought lawsuits against groups and individuals attempting to ban books from school libraries. At that time, no legal precedents were in place to guide school administrators on appropriate responses to book challenges. As a result, in 1982, Board of Education v. Pico (457 U.S. 853) reached the Supreme Court. This paper closely examines Pico and other related court cases and investigates principles of the First Amendment with regard to students and their right to intellectual freedom. Recommendations for addressing book challenges are provided.

How is the freedom of speech taught in schools? Sometimes it is taught when it is violated by the school board and students have to fight to protect their rights. Throughout history, students have received their most powerful lessons regarding the First Amendment of the United States Constitution by standing up for their right to receive information and ideas–that is, by reading books school officials would rather they didn’t see or discuss. One student, Steven Pico, who defended his freedom to read until it reached the highest court in the land, has said, “After twelve years of schooling, my education had in many ways finally begun.”1

In the school library, parents, community members, or school board officials have encountered books that they believe kids should not read and have sought to have the books removed from the shelves. In 1976, three school board members of the Island Trees School District in New York, having recently received a list of thirty-three “objectionable books” at a conference hosted by a conservative parents’ organization, had a janitor unlock the high school library. Once inside, they went through the card catalog and found eleven books from the list. In the following weeks, the school board ordered that all eleven books be removed from the district’s schools, nine from the high school library and two from the junior high library. The nine books from the high school library were: Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut; The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris; Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas; Best Short Stories by Negro Writers by Langston Hughes; Go Ask Alice by Anonymous; Laughing Boy by Oliver Lafarge; Black Boy by Richard Wright; A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich by Alice Childress; and Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. One of the books removed from the junior high was The Fixer by Bernard Malamud.

At first, the school superintendent objected to the school board’s course of action. He asserted that a policy “designed expressly to handle such problems”2 was already in place and recommended it be followed, even stating that they should not remove materials merely based on a compiled list they knew little about, and that the school board should at least review the books first. In response, the school board appointed a committee of parents, school officials, and other members of the community to review the books : “The committee was to take into account the books’ ‘educational suitability,’ ‘good taste,’ ‘relevance,’ and ‘appropriateness to age and grade level.’”3 The committee recommended that five books remain in the library (The Fixer, Laughing Boy, Black Boy, Go Ask Alice, and Best Short Stories by Negro Writers) and that two be removed (The Naked Ape and Down These Mean Streets). The committee was undecided on two of the books (Soul on Ice and A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich). However, the school board ultimately rejected the committee’s recommendations and removed all the books from the library as it had originally intended.

Had the school board had followed the policy noted by the superintendent, the case may have had very different results. After a press release was disseminated announcing the decision and labeling the books “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy,” Steven Pico, then a seventeen-year-old junior at Island Trees High School in New York, led a group of his peers into court to challenge the school board’s order to remove the books from library, stating that the students’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and information had been violated. 4 This challenge became the first school book banning case ever to be settled at the Supreme Court level. The battle lasted, in total, seven years.

The Board of Education v. Pico Supreme Court case was decided five to four in favor of Steven Pico and the other respondents. Justices Marshall, Stevens, Blackmun, and White concurred; Chief Justice Burger and Justices Powell, Rehnquist, and O’Connor dissented; and Justice Brennan delivered the plurality opinion of the court. 5 Most of the Justices wrote some sort of concurring or dissenting opinion asserting specific focal points they felt most relevant. While Pico was the first school library book banning case to reach the Supreme Court, it was by no means the first instance of book banning in schools–from the 1960s to the 1980s, a pervasive clash of viewpoints led to a rash of book banning in public schools across the country. In several instances, people seeking to have bans revoked turned to the courts, and ‘ many of the issues and ideas related to book banning and censorship are now inextricably linked to the precedents set in the resulting court cases. The themes addressed by the courts, and the main issues of conflict in many of the book banning events, were: school board discretion, student First Amendment rights, the right to receive information and ideas, and the selection and removal of books. The Board of Education v. Pico decision did not outlaw book banning or censorship, nor did it set clear guidelines for school boards to follow, and it did not even fully define students’ First Amendment rights in relation to censorship and selection. All the same, the Supreme Court decision, as well as the events leading up to Pico‘s hearing in Supreme Court, is worth further exploration for understanding how to respond to First Amendment threats in schools.

Before Board of Education v. Pico reached the Supreme Court in 1982, six cases were brought to lower federal court (i.e., district courts) to address virtually the same act of removing books from the school library. The courts’ decisions were evenly split–three cases were decided in favor of the board of education (or whatever group or agency was seeking removal of books), and three were decided in favor of a student’s right to receive the information contained in the books. These six previous cases, which so closely resembled Pico, addressed the main themes stated above, but in different ways. The issues surrounding the school boards’ role with regard to books and school libraries, although still not entirely clear, can be explained further by critically examining related court cases, including Pico.

School Board Discretion

Despite multiple cases being previously addressed by lower courts, by the time Board of Education v. Pico reached the Supreme Court, there were still no clear answers or laws pertaining to the removal of books from school libraries. This absence is likely the reason that the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case even though it had rejected similar cases in the past–clarification was simply not emerging from the lower court decisions. Decisions in other lower court cases acknowledged that the daily operations of schools were best left to the school officials put in place to oversee them. In the dissenting opinion in Pico, Justice Burger held this opinion even after the Supreme Court had reviewed the case by stating, “[T]he issue comes down to two important propositions: first, whether local schools are to be administered by elected school boards, or by federal judges and teenage pupils…”6 The school board members, it was argued, are elected school officials put in place to decide the curriculum and operation of the schools and have unfettered discretion to “protect” the students however they see fit. On the other hand, others wondered how this particular type of “protection” could co-exist with the essential freedom to exchange ideas.

In 1972, in Presidents Council, District 25 v. Community School Board No. 25,7 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school board’s absolute discretion to restrict students’ access to the book Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, a highly regarded account of a Puerto Rican boy growing up in Spanish Harlem. In this case, as with Pico,8 the issue of school board discretion was highlighted and the notion of First Amendment principles dismissed. Judge Mulligan, writing for the court, declared that someone must bear responsibility for book selection, and since school boards are statutorily empowered to operate the schools and prescribe the curriculum, the board is the appropriate body.9 In cases with similar outcomes, like James v. Board of Education in 1975,10 more justifications for school board discretion were upheld. One was the in loco parentis policy, which states that members of the school board and the school administration stand in place of parents while students are in school and consequently should be permitted to make decisions to oversee the growth of students’ intellectual and social values. Another validation for the school board maintaining ultimate responsibility can be called indoctrination theory, which states that schools perform certain socialization and indoctrination functions. Local school boards therefore must be given broad discretion to shape the minds of the students to accomplish these goals.11 In Pico, the Supreme Court addressed the theories of school board discretion throughout the case. The plurality opinion of the court began by conceding, “Our precedents have long recognized certain constitutional limits upon the power of the State to control even the curriculum and classroom.” The court then pointed out, however, that the respondents in the Pico case were not seeking to limit the board’s discretion over the curriculum, and that the issue in the case related only to library books. At the Supreme Court level in Pico, it was to be up to the respondents to prove that the board had partisan concerns motivating their decisions to ban books, and subsequently, the board would have to prove that suppression of ideas was not their aim. Justice Brennan recognized that while the school board claimed reliance on their “duty to inculcate community values,” they were, at the same time, duty-bound to follow First Amendment guidelines, just as schools had been forced to do in the case where it was decided “a student in a public school could not be compelled to salute the flag.”12

In summary, the plurality opinion found that although school boards do have a great deal of discretion with regard to school operations, states and boards must be in line with the First Amendment. Justice Brennan also pointed out that the “special characteristics” of a school library make it the most appropriate place for freedom of speech and expression to be recognized. Some concurring justices and all dissenting judges expressly disagreed with the tenet that school libraries have characteristics that set it apart from other school grounds, such as the classroom; a numerical majority of judges agreed that there should be no constitutional distinction between the classroom and the library. Nevertheless, Justice Brennan stated, “…We think that the First Amendment rights of students may be directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library.”13

The five to four vote of the Supreme Court in Pico yielded several important results. First, it was decided that the school board does have absolute discretion over curriculum with Constitutional constraints, but beyond the classroom there should be some imposed limitations. Second, it was stated that school boards have a role in determining school library content, but that it too is limited. Third, with regard to the type of discretion used by school boards in the selection of materials, Justice Brennan stated, “Our constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas.”14 Finally, matters of opinion (e.g., politics, nationalism, and religion) should not be prescribed by limiting the availability of books or other learning materials.

To address the indoctrination theory, it was stated that indoctrination was “intended to describe the school’s role in transmitting values…there is no suggestion…that the power of school officials extends beyond curriculum control to the suppression of ideas.”15 These somewhat concrete precedents emerged from the Pico case, but a great deal of disagreement and ambiguity remained concerning the school board and its relation to the school library, as well as matters of discretion. One interpretation of how limited discretion can be viewed was put forth when “Justice Blackmun explained that even if a majority of the community wished to eliminate certain ideas from the school library with which it disagreed, in our system, the Bill of Rights protects the minority from official imposition by the majority.”16 This was an important distinction and one that was likely ignored in earlier cases where the court ruled on behalf of the school board. It is true that it complicates the matter of school board discretion, and that it would be hard for parents to understand when they believe they have their child’s welfare in mind. Nevertheless, it is an important principle of the Bill of Rights that should be upheld in a public school just as much as in other government institutions, if for no other reason than to avoid “the effect of governing school affairs simply by a vague and indefinite pall of orthodoxy.”17

In one circumstance that did not end up in a courtroom but where justice was still sought, the results were compromising. When Judy Blume’s books such as Blubber, Deenie, and Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself were removed from two Hanover, Pennsylvania elementary and middle school libraries in 1984, only the school librarian stood up against the censorship. The people she turned to for support included Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, who wrote a letter to the Hanover School Board and pointed out, “[B]oards who would restrict the access of minors to materials and services because of actual or suspected parental objections should bear in mind that they do not serve in loco parentis.” Further, Krug poignantly stated that “well-written, sensitive books that address the very real issues, questions and concerns of young people in our society…are extremely popular with young people for these very reasons.”18 The books were returned to the shelves but were restricted so that parental permission was required for students to check them out. The school librarian stated that she felt her job “now entails something of the role of police officer” and that “when students defy the order and try to peek into the restricted titles, should I report them to the principal for disobeying orders? The atmosphere of freedom in our library has been replaced by one of moderate tension and confusion.”19 It may be safe to assert that not even parents or school board officials seeking removal of certain titles intended to transform the school library into such a place. Often, the consequences of these and similar restrictions on library books are not considered or understood by the people involved at the time of their removal. This is perhaps more substantiation that the act of challenging book content (particularly popular, acclaimed, and generally accepted titles) is one of irrationality and fear, rather than one of thoughtfulness or even protection.

Student First Amendment Rights

Although some courts dismissed the idea that students’ First Amendment rights were jeopardized when school boards removed books from their school library shelves or classrooms, the complaint kept arising. Thus, it was necessary to determine whether students at school were entitled to the freedoms that the Constitution guarantees citizens of the United States. In 1969, this was decided in Tinker v. Des Moines after students were suspended for wearing black armbands to school in order to protest the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court established the now famously invoked principle that students and teachers do not “shed their Constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”20 It is understood, however, that the Constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression is still tenuous and not clearly defined. This holds true today even after the many precedents set by these court cases, including Pico.

When Pico was at first heard in the Federal District Court, the court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, stating that:

The board acted not on religious principles but on its conservative educational philosophy, and on its belief that the nine books removed from the school library and curriculum were irrelevant, vulgar, immoral, and in bad taste, making them educationally unsuitable for the district’s junior and senior high school students.21

On these grounds, the district court dismissed any implication of violation of the students’ First Amendment rights. The lower court’s decision cited many of the previous cases mentioned above, such as Presidents Council and James v. Board of Education. Using these standards, the district court judgment also stated that courts should not “intervene in the daily operations of school systems unless basic constitutional values were sharply implicated.”22 In this decision, the court found that they were not. Pico and the other respondents appealed this ruling. The U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the district court judgment, concluding, “[P]etitioners were obliged to demonstrate a reasonable basis for interfering with respondents’ First Amendment rights.”23 One of the three judges in the court of appeals concluded that the school board acted unreasonably and out of character in interfering with the school library, did not illustrate proper motivation for violating the students’ rights to receive information, and’  tried to conceal the fact that a free speech issue was at hand. The appeals court judge felt that because the motives were unclear, uncovering the school board’s motivations would prove whether or not Constitutional values were breached. The motivations of those who attempted to remove books from a school library would become a focal point of Pico at the Supreme Court level as well as for future book banning cases. At this point, the petitioners (members of the Island Trees School Board) chose to submit their case to the U.S. Supreme Court rather than going back to trial at district court, because it is believed they didn’t think it would be granted certiorari, or judicial review.24

Other cases have identified that there should not exist a “chilling” of student rights, which, as acknowledged by the court in Pico, are liberty of conscience, freedom of expression, and right to receive information and ideas.25 One such case was Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District, where the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the school board had infringed on students’ First Amendment rights specifically by removing books from the library. The judge stated, “A library is a storehouse of knowledge…That privilege is not subject to being withdrawn by succeeding school boards whose members might desire to ‘winnow’ the library books for the contents of which occasioned their displeasure or disapproval.”26 Again, motivations are implied as the reason these types of acts are cast in opposition to principles of the First Amendment–the book banners were seeking to impose personal sensibilities upon the students. Even when a book contains language that is not appropriate for everyday use or describes unsavory ideas or feelings, the ability of the book to have a positive impact on the reader or provoke discussion or awareness is not necessarily diminished.

Right to Receive Information and Ideas

The clear delineation of students’ right to freedom of speech in schools means that a tenet of those rights comes into question: namely, the right to receive information and ideas. Does freedom of speech and expression include the right to receive information? The Supreme Court has decided that this tenet should be inferred from the First Amendment. This was established in Lamont v. Postmaster General in 1965. When delivering the opinion of the court in this case, Justice Brennan stated, “The dissemination of ideas can accomplish nothing if otherwise willing addressees are not free to receive and consider them.”27 In Board of Education v. Pico, Justice Brennan stated, “[T]he Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas.”28 This idea includes, in effect, the intellectual freedom of the students. Even under the curriculum and guidance of a school setting, a student has a reserved right to intellectual freedom. If not, the school would closer resemble a totalitarian regime, where individuals are not free to seek outside ideas and gain information that is not prescribed to them. Again, in Pico, it was put forth that a school library is an especially appropriate place to uphold the First Amendment ideals that include the right to read and receive ideas. Although other judges did not agree with the distinction, this ideal is in line with the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. If school boards are to truly uphold their “inculcating” function of readying young students to join society and learn community values, protecting their freedom to read and access ideas should be encouraged as a reflection of American society. Public libraries and the American Library Association help define and uphold intellectual freedom. If members of public school boards do not value these types of institutions, it seems they are denying students knowledge of, and appreciation for, a highly valued feature of society.

As a reaction to the many challenges of intellectual freedom, including the right to receive information and ideas, the library community began to publish and speak out against censorship. The response grew in the 1980s and remained steady. As late at 1996, Betty J. Turlock, then president of the American Library Association, published an in-depth article in The American School Board Journal, where she stated:

The freedom to think and read what we choose without censorship or limitation is one of this nation’s most precious freedoms. But in local school districts these days, it is a freedom that seems increasingly fragile: Censorship attacks on books are growing more common in school classrooms and media centers.29

She then went on to explicate that parents do, of course, have authority over what their children read, but that a parent’s discretion extends only to their own children and it is an infringement of Constitutional liberties to attempt to extend them to other people’s children. The right to read includes the antithesis, or even the antidote, to governmental mediation of what is read, expressed, or even thought.

Selection and Removal of Books

Like most of the book banning court cases in recent history, Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District was forced to address the issue of selection and removal of books. That is, censorship–what it entails, if it’s necessary, who should do it, and how certain selection practices are mandated. Minarcini came to trial because the school board not only rejected teachers’ request to add Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and a book by Kurt Vonnegut to the high school curriculum but also ordered the removal of those books from the school library.30 The school board gave no other reason for rejection other than that the books were “completely sick” and “garbage.” The court ruled in favor of protecting intellectual freedom and that “once having created a library, the school board does not have the power to censor its contents based only on the social and political tastes of its members.”31

Although it was originally hoped the Pico decision would provide specific laws about book selection and removal, ‘ it is now known that the courts will not provide specific guidelines to those difficult scenarios, as ‘ interfering with the state and school affairs may be too imposing.’  Rather, teachers and school officials now have access to plenty of literature, advice, and examples to choose from when developing procedures and guidelines around the selection of materials so as not to infringe on students’ rights while still providing access to materials they deem appropriate for schools.

In 1978, Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea32 further explored the principles of censorship. A poetry anthology entitled Male and Female, Under 18 was banned by school officials and subsequently challenged in federal district court by the Chelsea school librarian and a committee of supporters. A specific poem entitled “The City to a Young Girl” was stated as the reason for banning the book. The poem, written by a 15-year-old girl, expressed her feelings and frustrations about being sexually harassed on the streets of Brooklyn where she grew up. One parent wrote a newspaper article opposing the book and labeling it “filth.” The familiar sentiments she expressed convey how “over and over again, the facts in these incidents are the same…” and that “most of these books deal with social problems such as ghetto life, discrimination and drug abuse.”33 This perhaps provides a clue into the mind of a censor, i.e., people who feel that censoring books is appropriate appear to believe that removing literature about these issues will eliminate the issues. Despite there being no substantial evidence suggesting that literature can have harmful effects on students, denying children access to literature about such social difficulties effectively prevents children from being able to confront them.

Would-be censors at many schools often chose books of similar creed, substance, and literary value. In Pico, two of the books were Pulitzer Prize winners. Many times the books were approved and even hailed by teachers, librarians, and other professional educators for confronting social ills and highlighting marginalized groups in society. In defense of removing the books, school officials and parents used only excerpts of the books, particularly those containing “bad” words. Those seeking to censor such materials did not attempt to speak about the books as whole entities; rather, paragraphs or passages were taken out of context and put on display for interpretation’  even though there is no way to truly interpret a text’s meaning or impact in this manner. Upon close inspection of the facts, it seems that some school officials and parents were threatened by ideas or expressions that related in some way to intellectualism. This reaction can be supported by the idea that the only known effect of exposure to literature might be a level of awareness or sensitivity that was not present before.

As a result of the court’s plurality opinions in the Pico case, a test for determining if a book removal has free speech implications was developed. The following are extracted from that case:

  • Those removing books should be able to prove “substantial and legitimate government interests” such as obsolescence, architectural necessity, or other legitimate educational considerations.
  • A balance test might be enacted: was the book removed solely because the school board disliked it? Or is there substantial evidence to the contrary? The motives will be considered, and they should not be ambiguous or suspect. If the motives are suspect in any way, the removal is censorship. The unconstitutional reason for the removal of books, however, must be shown as the decisive factor for it to be a violation of First Amendment free speech.
  • A court of law will review the procedures and guidelines used to make the removal decisions.
  • There can be no “unusual or irregular intervention in the school libraries’ operations by persons not routinely concerned with their contents.”
  • Finally, a board must prove concretely, not abstractly, “that the interests of discipline or sound education are materially and substantially jeopardized” by the material they are seeking to remove.34

At the same time, school librarians, school boards, and other educators can now enact certain guidelines around selection and removal to prevent a First Amendment challenge from occurring. First, they must develop procedures and follow them. This caused a great deal of trouble for the school board in Pico when it became evident to the court that the board had violated its own policies by rejecting the appointed committee’s recommendations. Justice Brennan went so far as to suggest that the outcome of the case might have been different had the school board sought the opinion of librarians and other professionals and heeded their advice. Second, the opinion in Pico emphasized that a school board can transmit “community values” and that which reflect a community’s philosophy and ideas, but they must consider First Amendment principles and not impose certain ideas and values. This paradox would be difficult for anyone to interpret and enact, especially for those so concerned with the welfare of students and who believe that actual harm can come from exposure to specific words or ideas–certainly one of the most unclear and confusing outcomes of the book banning cases of the 1980s. The next guideline for school officials to consider, specifically when seeking to remove books are, is to bring order, protect the rights of others, or to promote standards of civility and decency. This provides yet another confusing and difficult guideline to follow. Presumably, one of these arguments might stand in as a passable justification for motivations based on personal responses, which may or may not infringe upon a student’s right to receive the ideas contained within.

The next selection considerations, while still open to interpretation, are more straightforward and aim to provide a balanced presentation of viewpoints, types of literature, and so on. Further selection considerations are that some books provide needed variety, more factually accurate accounts, or might interest students more than others. Once more, selection of materials walks a fine line with censorship and there are no definitive rules for achieving proper selection; indeed, such a thing probably does not exist. In the case of book banning, however, the issue is typically with preventing rather than with providing. The hope and aim is to avoid book banning by properly selecting materials in the first place and informing school officials that it is a potential Constitutional violation to remove them from the shelves once they have been approved. “Selection, then, begins with a presumption in favor of liberty of thought; censorship, with a presumption in favor of thought control.”35

In the present day, book banning and censorship still occur but under somewhat different circumstances. This can be seen as a direct impact of the rash of court cases in the 1980s. It seems that today “local officials [will not] be eager to have their private lives and political motivations examined at trial and scrutinized in the press.”36 School boards, parents, and other members of the community no longer wish to be brought into the public eye just so they can take a few books off the library’s shelves. This is not to say that books are not removed and challenges not brought to court. In 2001, a school in La Mirada, California removed Sophie’s Choice from the library shelf after receiving a parental complaint about the book’s sexual content. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) threatened to sue the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District if it wasn’t replaced. During protests led by a student at La Mirada, the author of the book, William Styron, was quoted on his views about censorship, saying, “I think it’s reprehensible. I find it shocking…it’s improper to allow people to be browbeaten about books in this country.”37 Nowadays it seems as though when challenges are brought, the district officials react carefully and according to policy and procedure. At La Mirada, the principal was said to have removed the book in order to review it in accordance with a policy stating that this must be done when parents find materials objectionable. It was later reported that the book was returned to the library shelves after being reviewed and after the ACLU’s threat to bring a First Amendment lawsuit; a message from the superintendent of the Norwalk-La Mirada schools stated, “[W]e are definitely not into censorship.”38 The book remained off school library shelves for three months while the principal decided if it was appropriate for curriculum. The managing attorney of the Southern California Chapter of the ACLU, however, reported that the book was returned for different reasons: “[T]he book is back in the library because district officials got some good advice from their attorneys–and realized they was [sic] in the wrong.”39 In addition, in this particular case, as with other cases, the popularity of the challenged book went up as a result of media coverage and curiosity. This is probably an unintentional result of book banning and, depending on the point of view, can be considered a positive or negative effect of the publicity received.

The ongoing complaints of parents and school board officials about what is on reading lists and in school libraries proves that the concerns and inclinations are much the same as they were twenty years ago. Challenges do appear to be brought less often, however, and other changes are taking place. These changes lean less towards obvious concerns over curriculum and values and more towards evolution and the recognition that one-size-fits-all educations should be a thing of the past (the emergence of charter schools being one example). Changes to public schools can be attributed to the need for hands-on learning and more personalized educations; however, much of the motivation for change is perhaps for the ability to directly cater to parents’ and school officials’ sensibilities, ones that they will not have to defend to the ACLU or any other organization concerned with intellectual freedom.

It has been stated that when “the Supreme Court chose to concern itself more with questions of procedure than with questions of substance, more questions were left unanswered than were decided.”40 This may be true, in part, from both sides of the debate. The Pico decision did not outline specific rules or regulations for acceptable content in books, which may be upsetting to parents especially concerned about it. It also did not outlaw book banning–a law which many proponents of intellectual freedom might have liked to see put in place. One person of particular authority of opinion is Steven Pico, who spent seven years of his life trying to get nine books put back on the shelves of his (former) high school library. He eventually succeeded, and some years later he stated in a speech to school librarians that it was imperative not to underestimate the importance of this decision. One must realize that Supreme Court doctrine evolves slowly. Consider that this case came to the most conservative court in sixty years, and that the court was being asked to recognize a First Amendment right which had no firm history in Constitutional law. This was the best decision we could have hoped for in this environment.41

These are powerful realizations for anyone who might criticize the events and outcomes of the Pico case. In reality, precedents evolve slowly; ‘ however, progress has been made. Despite the ever-increasing modifications in the structure of public schools and the slow evolution of perceptions about intellectual freedom for students (or anybody), it is entirely too difficult to predict if students in public schools will forever have to learn about First Amendment the hard way.


  1. Steven Pico, “An Introduction to Censorship,” School Library Media Quarterly 18, no. 2 (1990), 84-87.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Larry Kraus, “Censorship: What Island Trees V. Pico Means to Schools,” The Clearing House 57, 343-345.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Steven A. Pico, et al. 457 U.S. 853 (1982).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Presidents Council, District 25 v. Community School Board, 457 f.2d 289 (2d Cir. 1972).
  8. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Steven A. Pico, et al. 474 f. supp 387 E.D.N.Y, 1979.
  9. Presidents Council, District 25 v. Community School Board, 457 f.2d 289 (2d Cir. 1972).
  10. James v. Board of Education, 461 f.2d 566, 573 (2d Cir. 1972).
  11. Timothy L. Coggins, “Book Removals from School Libraries and Students’ First Amendment Rights,” School Law Bulletin 17, no. 3 (1986), 17-21.
  12. West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).
  13. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Steven A. Pico, et al. 457 U.S. 853 (1982).
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Gail Paulus Sorenson, “Removal of Books from School Libraries 1972 — 1982: Board of Education v. Pico and its Antecedents,” Journal of Law of Education 12 (July 1983), 417-41.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Elyse Clark, “A Slow, Subtle Exercise in Censorship,” School Library Journal 32, no. 7 (1986), 93-96.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).
  21. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Steven A. Pico, et al. 474 f. supp 387 E.D.N.Y, 1979.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Steven A. Pico, et al. 474 f. supp 387 E.D.N.Y, 1979, reversed: 638 f.2d 404 (2d Cir. 1980).
  24. Steven Pico, “An Introduction to Censorship,” School Library Media Quarterly 18, no. 2 (1990), 84-87.
  25. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Steven A. Pico, et al. 457 U.S. 853 (1982).
  26. Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District, 541 f.2d 577 (6th Cir. 1976).
  27. Lamont v. Postmaster General 381 U.S. 301 (1965).
  28. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Steven A. Pico, et al. 457 U.S. 853 (1982).
  29. Betty J. Turlock, “Locked Out, Censorship is on the Rise Again–and Students’ Freedom to Read is in Your Hands,” The American School Board Journal 183 (October 1996), 31-3.
  30. Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District, 541 f.2d 577 (6th Cir. 1976).
  31. Gail Paulus Sorenson, “Removal of Books from School Libraries 1972—1982: Board of Education v. Pico and its Antecedents,” Journal of Law of Education 12, (July 1983), 417-41.
  32. Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea, 454 f. supp 703, 711 (D. Mass 1978).
  33. Steven Pico, “An Introduction to Censorship,” School Library Media Quarterly 18, no. 2 (1990), 84-87.
  34. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Steven A. Pico, et al. 457 U.S. 853 (1982).
  35. Lester Asheim, “Not Censorship But Selection” Wilson Library Bulletin (September 1953).
  36. Steven Pico, “An Introduction to Censorship,” School library Media Quarterly 18, no. 2 (1990), 84-87.
  37. Duke Helfand, “Students Fight for ‘Sophie’s Choice,’” Los Angeles Times, (December 22, 2001).
  38. Andrea Perera, “Controversial Novel Returns to Library,” Los Angeles Times (January 12, 2002).
  39. Ibid.
  40. Larry L. Kraus, “What Island Trees v. Pico Means to Schools,” The Clearing House 57 (April 1984), 343-5.
  41. Steven Pico, “An Introduction to Censorship,” School Library Media Quarterly 18, no. 2 (1990), 84-87.


Reichman, Henry. Censorship and Selection, Issues and Answers for Schools. Chicago:American Library Association, 1993.

Rogers, Donald J. Banned! Book Censorship in Schools. New York: Simon and Schuster,Inc., 1988.

About the Author

Amy Pelman received her MLIS degree from UCLA in 2006.’  She works as a public librarian focusing on teen advocacy, teen programming, and adult technology instruction.’  She enjoys shining the spotlight on fellow librarian colleagues in her blog The Original Librarian Trading Cards.

Dr. Beverly Lynch is a professor of Information Studies at UCLA, Director of the Senior Fellows Program, and the Founding Director, California Rare Book School. Dr. Lynch’s teaching and research interests center on structures of complex organizations, organizational environments and organizational change; measurement and evaluation of libraries and library services; libraries as organizations, and academic and research university libraries.

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