If you love libraries, you might know that today marks the anniversary of an important decision upholding the First Amendment in schools.
In Board of Ed. v. Pico (1982), the plurality opinion stated that school libraries have “special characteristics” as providers of free access to information, and should be especially vigilant of upholding students’ First Amendment rights. Pico began when the Island Trees School District on Long Island banned a number of books, including Go Ask Alice, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Richard Wright’s Black Boy, from its libraries, calling them “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” The Supreme Court ultimately found that for a school library to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion” is a violation of students’ First Amendment Rights.
Today, the very same rationales used to challenge books in New York are still being utilized to challenge books in school libraries and public libraries. Just this past week outside Chicago, parents wanted The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian taken off reading lists and library shelves because of “inappropriate language” and sexual content. In May, a school principal literally ripped pages out of an anthology because he found the content objectionable. The Pico books themselves continue to come under fire. Go Ask Alice is frequently on the ALA’s lists of most-banned books. Both Black Boy and Slaughterhouse-Five have been challenged every few years since 1972, most recently in a Michigan high school in 2007.
Since the Supreme Court ruled in Pico that school libraries must be safe spaces for free inquiry, then books are inherently essential to a thorough education. Yet twenty-seven years after Pico, books are still disappearing from library shelves inside and outside schools.