Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v.
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.
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
Five be made available to students only with parental approval.
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
- 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.
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.
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?
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
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).
Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982)
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
"… 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.'"
Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982)
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.
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.
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.
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
"… 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