Sorting Out the Library Shelf in the Wake of the Pico Decision

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Some months have now passed since the Supreme Court's ruling in the Pico case (Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico)--its first real occasion to review the constitutionality of book and library censorship.

By a slim 5-to-4 vote, the Court agreed that book banning in public schools may be subject to federal-court review. And although the Justices did not agree on the constitutional basis for their ruling, it is possible to speculate on what would be acceptable grounds for removing or not buying books in light of the Pico decision.

Given the limitations of space in the typical school library, it would not be unreasonable for someone outside the professional staff to demand that all prior editions (or all books published before a certain date) be removed to clear the shelves for incoming materials.

Changes in the library collection made by an administrator or board member rather than by the library staff may also be reasonable when major shifts in a school's curriculum occur. If, for example, the school no longer offered any instruction in a particular foreign language, any book previously used in teaching that language might be removed if space is needed for the study of a different language or a new discipline.

Occasionally, the major thesis of a book may be disproved by later research or discovery. While a large library collection might retain the discredited work for mere historical interest, a school library with limited space could reasonably remove the discredited work to make way for new and presumably more accurate treatments of the same subject.

In very rare instances, boards or administrators might find the presence of a particular work in the school library so threatening to the school environment as to warrant its removal or restriction. In a racially tense school, for example, the availability of inflammatory racist tracts might pose a degree of risk that would warrant the restriction of their circulation or their removal.

The removal of a book containing answers to tests used in school courses would not seem to be an unreasonable act of censorship. The continued presence in the library of such a "crib sheet" surely would be subversive of the learning process.

On similar grounds, the library might well be asked to restrict circulation for a certain time of English translations of works being read in their original language. Such a restriction might well be reasonable even though it would deny access to the English translations even to students not enrolled in the language course. Here, too, a judgment clearly based on content need not constitute unlawful censorship.

The most potentially hazardous criterion for removing a book is that it contains objectionable language. Perhaps one should simply rule out any censorship of library or curricular materials based upon parental, teacher, or administrative objection to their language. On the other hand, educators might conceivably restrict circulation of a raw anthology of vulgar and taboo words that is found to lack any redeeming qualities. But if language is ever to be the basis of restriction, careful procedures must be used in order to protect the sensitive and frail freedoms of expression and inquiry in the school setting.

However, the Pico decision also leaves some important questions unanswered.

First, the distinction between removing books already on the shelf and barring acquisition of books not yet in the collection was overdrawn by the Court when it suggested, incorrectly, in its ruling that the question of censorship of future public-school library acquisitions does not raise the same constitutional questions as the censorship of books already on library shelves.

Second, because the Court's decision stressed the importance in the resolution of a book-banning case of the "motive" of censors--a state of mind that would require some statement of opinion by the alleged censors--there would seem to be no basis for court review if a school official gives no explanation for removing books.

Third, there was more than a hint in the Court's ruling that such grounds as "pervasive vulgarity" or "educational suitability" might justify book removal, even though neither term was objectively defined.

Finally, there was a disturbing distinction made in the case between the school library and the classroom. The opinion of four members of the majority in the case cautioned against applying elsewhere in the school precepts intended to be applied to library materials.

There will be many more school-censorship cases before long, and they may help to answer some of the questions Pico left open. Meanwhile, we as educators do have a bit more guidance than we had before. And where that guidance is lacking, we can begin to provide some of our own answers.

Vol. 02, Issue 18, Page 17

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