Island Trees Board Returns Nine Banned Books to Shelves
In an effort to avoid "judicial control" of its school libraries, the Island Trees Union Free School District will drop its ban of nine school-library books and, instead, require parental notification when students check them out, according to a lawyer for the school board.
The board's decision, made earlier this month, comes in response to a Supreme Court ruling this summer requiring the school board to defend its 1976 book ban in federal district court.
However, lawyers for the students who had sued the board, charging that the book removals were unconstitutional, say the restrictions placed on the books' circulation may continue to violate students' First Amendment rights.
"By submitting to a trial [the board believed that] it would be accepting judicial control," said George W. Lipp Jr., lawyer for the school board. "[Parental notification] gives parents some involvement," which is what the board wanted, he continued.
"I have no fear of going to trial," said Mr. Lipp. "The board's action was properly motivated the first time."
"We're gratified by the board's action, but the parental-notification requirement is of some concern," said Arthur Eisenberg, a staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and one of the lawyers representing the students.
"We believe [the board] moved to restore the books in part owing to the recognition that the First Amendment limits the capacity of school boards to ban books because they don't like the ideas expressed in them," he said.
However, "to the extent that the school board has continued to single out the books for special treatment again, the constitutional defect is not necessarily cured," he added.
Attorneys for both groups agree that the six-year-old censorship case, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico remains unresolved.
The case stems from a lawsuit against the board brought in 1976 by five students, including Steven A. Pico, who argued that the school board, by removing the books from the school library, had violated the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.
In a narrow and divided decision, the Supreme Court rejected the Island Trees board's assertion of absolute authority over the removal of books from school libraries. The decision returned the case to federal district court for a trial to examine the students' claims.
Lawyers for both sides will meet next month to discuss further action, Mr. Lipp and Mr. Eisenberg agreed.
The Supreme Court's ruling on June 25 did not produce a majority opinion. However, in a plurality opinion, four Justices agreed that the school board's action was constitutionally permissible if it was motivated by judgments of "educational suitability" or "pervasive vulgarity" in the books removed.
But if the board's intent was only to "suppress ideas," the Justices said, it had violated students' constitutional rights. Three Justices identified students' "right to receive ideas" from school libraries.
To maintain its book ban in the face of the lawsuit, the Island Trees school board would have to prove at a trial that its motives were permissible, the Court said.
The books in question are: Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes; Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas; The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud; Go Ask Alice, of anonymous authorship; A Hero Ain't Nothin But A Sandwich, by Alice Childress; Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris; A Reader for Writers, by Jerome Archer; Slaughter House Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; and, Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver.
After removing the books in 1976, the Island Trees school board issued a press release characterizing the books as "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy."
"It is our duty, our moral obligation, to protect the children in our schools from this moral danger as surely as from physical and medical dangers," the release stated.