The Pico Case – 35 Years Later
By: April Dawkins
Thirty-five years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in the only case to involve censorship in school libraries: Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v Pico (1982). This case was initiated because a conservative activist group — Parents of New York United (PONY-U) — compiled a list of books that they wished to have removed from school libraries. The titles were:
- Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
- The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris
- Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas
- Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes
- Go Ask Alice, of anonymous authorship
- Laughing Boy, by Oliver LaFarge
- Black Boy, by Richard Wright
- A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, by Alice Childress
- Soul On Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver
- A Reader for Writers, edited by Jerome Archer
- The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud
The first nine books on the list above were from the high school library. The next book was from the junior school, and the final book on the list was removed from the curriculum of an English class.
The local school board chose to remove the books from the high school and junior high libraries referring to them as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy” (Pico, 1982 at 857), despite the recommendation of a committee of parents and faculty. After the board members removed titles without a formal review process, a group of students filed suit against the district claiming a violation of their First Amendment rights. Pico was remanded for trial and the school board voted to return the books to the shelves in order to avoid further litigation. However, it was subsequently taken up by the Court of Appeals and eventually ended up in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Pico is the first and only Supreme Court decision to address a student’s right to receive information; however, it does not provide a clear explanation of the breadth of the school board’s right to restrict access. The fact that all nine of the Supreme Court justices wrote opinions with a wide range of views did not contribute to clarity. Justice Brennan’s opinion in Board of Education v Pico emphasized the rights of students, saying the “special characteristics of the school library make that environment especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students.”
Pico has been interpreted to allow school boards some latitude in choosing to remove a book. There are two standards that were discussed in the justices’ opinions which might allow for removal: pervasive vulgarity or lack of educational suitability. Unfortunately, the problem is associated with interpreting these two standards. An additional issue is that these two standards were supported by four of the justices constituting a plurality and not majority of the court. What has resulted from the case are several basic ideas:
- School boards ARE responsible for supervising the education of students who are in their care and can remove materials deemed educationally unsuitable or pervasively vulgar;
- School boards CANNOT impede student rights just because they object to a certain viewpoint or idea; and
- School boards must follow established procedures to remove materials from school libraries and classrooms.
While there have been other court cases about censorship, none have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Another case of interest especially considering the rise in challenges to books dealing with LGBTQ+ issues, is Case v Unified School District (1995). In this court case, a school board in Kansas removed Annie on My Mind from the district’s junior and high school libraries. In its decision, the district course referred to the Pico case when choosing to support the plaintiffs and having the book returned to the shelves. In the discussion of the decision, the court cited several issues:
- The school board removed the book because they did not approve of its content, and NOT because it was vulgar or educationally unsuitable.
- The school board did NOT follow its own reconsideration policy in its decision to remove the book.
These two cases highlight the importance of having policies and procedures in place. And when the policy is not followed, reaching out to intellectual freedom experts for support.
Want to learn more:
- Hear the oral arguments from the case as it was presented to the US Supreme Court – from Oyez
- Listen to an interview with Barbara Bernstein, former executive director of the Nassau County, NY CLU – from LibraryLaw Blog
- Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853
- Case v Unified School District, 233, 908, F. Supp., 864
April Dawkins is an assistant professor in the Library and Information Studies department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In May 2017, April completed her Ph.D. at the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. Her research focus for her doctoral dissertation was understanding the factors that influence decisions around selection in school libraries and the role of self-censorship. Prior to her doctoral studies, April served for 15 years as a high school media specialist in North Carolina. She is also a past president of the North Carolina School Library Media Association. April also serves on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians. Find her on Twitter @aprldwkns.