In 1976, a local school board in New York ordered books by celebrated authors including Kurt Vonnegut removed from the school library, saying the books were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy.” A lawsuit brought by students claimed their First Amendment rights were violated. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court entered a splintered ruling. But the principal opinion by Justice William Brennan concluded that school officials may not exercise their discretion to remove books from a school library based on “narrowly partisan or political” grounds, because doing so would amount to an “official suppression of ideas.” The case was Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico. In this 1982 photo, a crowd holds a rally in New York protesting the censorship of school and public libraries of certain books under pressure from right-wing religious groups. (AP Photo/Carlos Rene Perez)
In Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), the Supreme Court addressed a constitutional challenge to a local school board’s decision to remove several books from the district’s school libraries; in a splintered decision with seven of the nine Justices writing opinions, the Court held that factual disputes about the school board’s motivation for the removal precluded the school board from prevailing in the lower court without a full trial.
Students sued school board after books removed from library
The local school board had ordered that certain books written by celebrated authors such as Richard Wright and Kurt Vonnegut be removed from the district’s school libraries. The board characterized the books as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy.” Some students at the affected schools brought suit against the school board, arguing that the board’s actions violated their First Amendment rights.
Lower courts disagreed on whether a trial should be held
The trial court granted judgment for the school board without a trial, concluding that courts should generally defer to the school board’s broad discretion to formulate educational policy. The court of appeals reversed, holding that this summary judgment was inappropriate when there was a contested factual issue as to whether the school board was motivated by a desire to remove books containing vulgarities and sexual explicitness, a permissible motivation, or by an “impermissible desire to suppress ideas.”
Supreme Court said school boards must work within First Amendment
Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote the principal opinion of the Supreme Court. The opinion was joined in its entirety by Justices Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens and in part by Justice Harry A. Blackmun.
Relying on cases such as West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) and Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), Justice Brennan’s opinion reaffirmed that though “local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs,” that discretion “must be exercised in a manner that comports with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment.”
Justices said school boards could not remove books to suppress ideas
On the principle that “the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas,” he concluded that the removal of books from the shelves of a school library implicates students’ First Amendment rights in part because of “the special characteristics of the school library.” Justice Brennan then concluded that school officials may not exercise their discretion to remove books from a school library based on “narrowly partisan or political” grounds, because doing so would amount to an “official suppression of ideas.”
In a concurrence, Justice Blackmun rejected the notion that a school library was distinct from the school itself and also disagreed with the notion that students had a First Amendment “right to receive” in the context of a public school. He agreed, however, that school officials’ removal of books “for the purpose of restricting access to the political ideas, or social perspectives discussed in them, when that action is motivated simply by the officials’ disapproval of the ideas involved” was a violation of the First Amendment.
Court said a trial should have been held rather than giving summary judgment to school board
On the basis of the factual disputes in the record about whether the school board members had removed the books because of their vulgarity or to suppress the books’ ideas, Brennan, Marshall, Stevens, and Blackmun voted to affirm the appellate court’s decision to reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment.
The fifth vote to affirm the court of appeals was provided by Justice Byron R. White, who concurred in the judgment but expressly disavowed stating any views on the First Amendment question. Because of this unusual breakdown in the votes of the justices, the legal holding of Pico consists simply of Justice White’s very limited opinion.
Dissenters did not think removing the books implicated First Amendment rights
All four dissenting justices wrote opinions attacking Justice Brennan’s views. The dissents argued that removing the books from the school libraries did not implicate any First Amendment rights because the books were available elsewhere; the “right to receive information” does not apply in the context of a school; and federal courts should leave educational policy decisions to local government officials subject to democratic accountability.
This article was originally published in 2009. Anuj C. Desai is the William Voss-Bascom Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin, where he teaches in both the Law School and the iSchool. Among his classes are those in First Amendment, Intellectual Freedom, and Cyberlaw. He has published numerous articles on topics related to the First Amendment, including in the Stanford Law Review and Federal Communications Law Journal. Prior to entering academia, Professor Desai practiced law with the Seattle, Washington firm of Davis Wright Tremaine, where his practice included a variety of First Amendment-related matters.Send Feedback on this article