Only One Library Book Ban Case Has Ever Made It to the Supreme Court
Remembering 1982’s Island Trees v. Pico can inspire others to stand up against book bans and censorship in libraries.
In 1982, the US Supreme Court decided Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, a case in which a school board was sued over its decision to remove books from a school library.
You may be surprised to learn that it was the first — and, so far, only — library book ban case to be heard by the Supreme Court.
What happened was this: Shortly after the start of the 1975 school year, three members of the New York-based Island Trees Board of Education — Frank Martin, Patrick Hughes, and board chair Richard Ahrens — attended a conference sponsored by the conservative activist group Parents of New York United. At the conference, someone circulated a list of books that they considered “objectionable.”
Sign the petition to fight book bans!
When nine of those books were later found in the library of Island Trees High School, Ahrens and the board ordered them removed, calling them “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy.” The books were
- Richard Wright’s Black Boy;
- Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five;
- Alice Childress’s A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich;
- Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy, which won the 1930 Pulitzer Prize;
- The Naked Ape by zoologist Desmond Morris;
- Down These Mean Streets by Afro-Puerto Rican poet Piri Thomas;
- Soul on Ice by Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver;
- the anonymous drug memoir Go Ask Alice; and
- Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes.
A tenth book turned up at the junior high school: A Reader for Writers, edited by Jerome Archer, which had been on the PONY-U list because it “equates Malcolm X, considered by many to be a traitor to this country, with the founding fathers of our country.” (This wouldn’t be Island Trees’ objection. Instead, the board focused on “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift’s satirical take on how poor Irish people could improve their fortunes — selling their children as food — which Ahrens would call “irrelevant to the curriculum.”) Finally, book eleven, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, was nixed from a twelfth-grade syllabus.
It wasn’t the first time conservatives tried to scotch books they didn’t like, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Then, as now, the country was engulfed in a fight over which books should be allowed in schools and libraries. The American Library Association recorded a rise in censorship activity, from one hundred book removals or challenges annually in the early 1970s to one thousand annually by the end of the decade. Would-be censors condemned all sorts of depictions: unorthodox families, radical politics, unflattering portraits of American authority, any mention of Christ, any mention of sex.
Some of the attacks were sobering, as when, on an overcast day in December 1977, the Warsaw, Indiana, Senior Citizens Club built a bonfire and chucked in forty copies of the self-help treatise Values Clarification: A Handbook of Practical Strategies for Teachers and Students.
Others offered a bit of high camp, like the campaign of Tom Williams, a Baptist minister in Abingdon, Virginia, who characterized his local library as a “dispenser of hard-core pornography at public expense” for circulating such titles as Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, Harold Robbins’s The Lonely Lady, and Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline. Williams accused the head librarian of “feloniously corrupting the minds of children.” The librarian, in turn, “accused the preacher of stealing a book.” When Williams tried to get excerpts from these raunchfests published in the local newspaper, the editor-in-chief refused, calling Williams a “nipplehead.”
Send an email to your Representatives to show your support for libraries!
Numbers of challenged books fluctuated in the 1990s and 2000s before beginning an inexorable upward climb. In 2014, ALA recorded 311 items affected by censorship activities. By 2019, the number was almost double. Two years later, it had nearly tripled, and 2022 saw another huge increase.
In the first eight months of 2023, nearly four thousand unique titles were targeted for censorship.
In January of 1977, responding to the library book removals, Island Trees senior and student body president Steven Pico, along with four other students, sued the school board, claiming that the books were removed because “passages in the books offended [the board’s] social, political and moral tastes and not because the books, taken as a whole, were lacking in educational value.” They alleged that the board’s actions violated their First Amendment right to “receive information.”
In 1979, a federal district court ruled in favor of the school board, reasoning that while “removal of such books from a school library may, indeed in this court’s view does, reflect a misguided educational philosophy, it does not constitute a sharp and direct infringement of any first amendment right.” An appellate court reversed that decision and remanded the case back to the district court, prompting the Supreme Court to step in.
In June 1982, the court ruled 5–4 in the students’ favor. In his opinion, Justice William Brennan wrote that while “local school boards have a substantial legitimate role to play in the determination of school library content,” those boards’ authority “must be exercised in a manner that comports with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment.”
In other words, school officials can’t ditch books just because they don’t like them.
Help fight for libraries by starting a $5 monthly donation today!
Only two justices fully joined Brennan’s opinion, while two others agreed with parts of it. All four dissenting justices wrote their own opinion — an unusually large number. This ideological fracturing meant that the case set a weak precedent, one from which lower courts have occasionally deviated. One day, perhaps, the case will be overturned.
Given the makeup of the current Supreme Court, no one should be surprised if it is.
After nearly half a century, Island Trees v. Pico is less well-known than it should be. Even among librarians, it isn’t as famous as, say, the “Connecticut Four,” the banning of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964).
Perhaps that is because the case didn’t result in any behavioral changes. School boards are still censoring books, now more than ever.
If I had been a Pico plaintiff, I might feel bitter about that. Russell Rieger, who was one of them, doesn’t seem to. In a 2013 interview with the National Coalition Against Censorship, he said,
"Looking back, I still believe they felt they were acting in the best interest for the students, but this is where the First Amendment is so important. They may have had the best of intentions, but it was their communal ignorance, not ever reading any of the books that they banned. That is why access to knowledge is so important."
I couldn’t agree more.
Visit www.everylibrary.org to learn more about our work on behalf of libraries.
#librarymarketers: Enjoy this story? Want to use it for your library newsletter, blog, or social media? This article is published under Creative Commons License Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International and is free to edit and use with attribution. Please cite EveryLibrary on medium.com/everylibrary.
This work by EveryLibrary is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0