Yanking Books From School Libraries: What the Supreme Court Has Said, and Why It’s Murky – Education Week
The heading on a list of books that a politically conservative parents group found objectionable for school libraries was ominous.
“DO NOT LET THIS MATERIAL FALL INTO THE HANDS OF OUR YOUNGSTERS,” it said, regarding works that included literary-prize winners, minority perspectives on the American experience, and discussions of sexuality, as well as plenty of examples of vulgar language.
Three local school board members who attended the conservative group’s conference took the list back to their community and worked to find out whether their school libraries had any of the books on the shelves. One board member was particularly agitated about books on the list that addressed racial issues.
It may sound like something happening today in Texas or any number of other areas around the country. But this was 1975 in Levittown, N.Y., the famous planned community on Long Island. The board members took action to remove a handful of the listed books, leading a few years later to an important—but complicated—U.S. Supreme Court decision about the limitations on school authorities to remove books for political or ideological reasons.
That 1982 decision in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico was so fractured that legal experts debate to this day the degree of legal guidance it provides for the newest wave of book challenges in schools.
Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote a sometimes-soaring opinion that said the First Amendment imposes limits on school boards’ authority to remove library books and that students have a right to receive information.
“A school library, no less than any other public library, is a place dedicated ‘to quiet, to knowledge, and to beauty’,” Brennan wrote, quoting an earlier high-court decision. “We hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”
But Brennan’s opinion in Pico was for a three-justice plurality of the court, not a majority. Two other justices concurred in varying degrees with a bottom-line judgment in favor of the students in the Pico case. The complicated result left much to be interpreted by lower courts and legal experts.
“Pico is a nebulous decision, but lower courts have understood it to say that there are some limitations on the ability of school authorities to ban and remove books from school libraries,” said Justin Driver, a Yale University law professor who wrote about the case in The Schoolhouse Gate, his 2018 book about landmark student-rights cases in the Supreme Court.
“It’s definitely relevant today,” Driver said in …….