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A Roundup of the Latest Book-Banning News
by
Posted On June 13, 2023
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The following is the text of “‘The Right to Receive Ideas’: Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, 40 Years Later,” which originally ran in the November/December 2022 issue of Information Today.

Better late than never, as the saying goes. This is the last Information Today issue of 2022. It is therefore the final opportunity to say, in these pages, that this year, which has seen record inflation, the 25th birthday of Harry Potter, and the end of Roe v. Wade, should be remembered as the anniversary of another court case, one less famous but no less central. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 et al. v. Steven A. Pico, in which a school board was sued over its decision to remove books from a school library. You may be surprised to learn that this was the first—and, so far, only—Supreme Court case to consider library bans.

The facts, as recounted by the Bill of Rights Institute, are depressingly familiar. In February 1976, a New York school board, acting on a complaint from the conservative organization Parents of New York United, removed nine books from the high school library that it called “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy.” The books were Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris, Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, Best Short Stories by Negro Writers edited by Langston Hughes, Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks, Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge, Black Boy by Richard Wright, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich by Alice Childress, and Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. Another book, A Reader for Writers, was yanked from the junior high library for its inclusion of Jonathan Swift’s 1729 satirical essay “A Modest Proposal.” Lastly, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer was scrubbed from the curriculum of a 12th-grade literature course.

In response, senior Steven Pico and 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.” It was a disputatious case, with the Supreme Court ruling 5-4 in the students’ favor. Justice William Brennan’s opinion for the court reaffirmed that although “local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs,” it “must be exercised in a manner that comports with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment.” In other words, a government can’t squelch ideas just because it doesn’t like them. Seems to me I’ve read that somewhere.

Libraries, Brennan went on, are places for “voluntary inquiry” to which the aforementioned discretion extends in only a couple of situations. One is “pervasive” vulgarity, and the other is “educational suitability.” The problem, of course, is the impossibility of making these standards objective, writes April Dawkins on the Intellectual Freedom Blog. Perhaps this is why only three other justices supported Brennan’s opinion, meaning it passed with a plurality rather than a majority. (A fifth justice concurred with the judgment but not the reasoning, and so didn’t sign Brennan’s opinion.) Each of the four dissenting justices wrote their own opinion—an unusually high number—most of which argued that the “right to receive information” does not apply in the context of a school, so there was no First Amendment issue. At least in 1982, they couldn’t say, “Besides, the books are all online.”

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME

The Pico case wasn’t the first time conservatives tried to scotch books they didn’t like, and it wouldn’t be the last. 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: 607. Two years later, it had nearly tripled, to 1,597. Challengers might be even more prolific in 2022, according to any number of articles. And they’re still coming for librarians.

In a February 2022 New York Times editorial, conservative commentator Stanley Kurtz writes about an “overlooked” figure in the national debate over what materials schoolchildren should have access to: the “woke librarian.” If you’re a librarian like me, you likely never thought of yourself as being “cool” or “of this century,” much less “woke.” But Kurtz insists that this breed of bibliosoph is no urban legend. By vowing ideological neutrality in the provision of knowledge, librarians ideally enable readers to develop opinions based on broad consideration of the available alternatives. In contrast, librarians who allow their personal politics to control or curtail the provision of information violate neutrality and betray the public trust. A woke librarian, then, is a contradiction in terms.

Kurtz says “woke” with a sneer, but the word hasn’t always been pejorative. According to linguist John McWhorter in another New York Times piece, it was borrowed from Black slang, first appearing “in neither a BuzzFeed article nor a rap but a jolly piece on Black vernacular expressions in 1962” by William Melvin Kelly called “If You’re Woke, You Dig It.” By the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the word had come to signal righteous indignation, with activists calling on one another to “stay woke.” It still means that when liberals use the word. Conservatives, unfortunately, have turned it into a taunt.

There are flaws in Kurtz’s argument. For starters, as one of my colleagues points out, providing access to all points of view on current and historical issues would put librarians in a position to acquire information that is flawed. Some alternative views on certain historical topics are truly false, having been debunked by experts over and over again. “I would rather prioritize acquiring accurate information,” my colleague says, “than possibly providing access to misinformation.”

It used to be easier to recognize misinformation. Self-published book? Dreck. Writing outside your area of expertise? Twaddle. Anything about UFOs? Call the men in white coats. These days, things are inverted. Self-published books get picked up by traditional publishers and go on to be bestsellers (such as Andy Weir’s The Martian and Lisa Genova’s Still Alice). Twitter allows—nay, encourages—anyone to write about anything; in fact, being criticized for not knowing what you’re talking about makes you a zeitgeist hero, like that time Fox News’ Laura Ingraham told LeBron James, who had shared a few political opinions in an ESPN interview, to “shut up and dribble.” As for UFOs, even the U.S. government now says they exist.

CALL OF DUTY, LIBRARIAN-STYLE

My other quibble with Kurtz’s view is this: Librarians do not “see it as [our] duty to promote progressive views on race, policing, sexuality and other issues,” as he puts it. We’re no more interested in proselytizing than we are in opening a fruit stand at the reference desk. And the idea that we would add only liberal books to our collections is silly. How many public libraries have no books at all by Tucker Carlson? Ann Coulter? Bill O’Reilly? Donald Trump?

It is our duty to improve access to information on important but marginalized views. This means creating a welcoming environment for seekers of that information by, for example, putting up a display of LGBTQ+ books or having bibliographies of race-related resources. I can see how conservatives who don’t want any boats rocked would view this as promotion. But, well, they are the ones rocking the boat with their objections. If I wanted to get people to agree with me that, say, trans people deserve equal rights, putting up a trans book display is a weak way of reaching that goal. Wouldn’t I be pushier about it? More obnoxious? Do things like hand out fliers? Or write a New York Times editorial? The very fact that topics such as race, policing, and sexuality are “woke”—that is, not mainstream—is why they need help entering the marketplace of ideas. Librarians offer that help, not because those topics align with our politics, but because it’s our job to rescue viewpoints. After all, access without selection is anarchy.

I am surprised that, after nearly half a century, the Pico case is not more well-known. Even among librarians, it isn’t as famous as, say, Doe v. Gonzales (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.” 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 the plaintiffs, doesn’t seem to. In a 2013 interview with the National Coalition Against Censorship, he said, “Looking back, I still believe [the school board] felt they were acting in the best interest for the students.” Their fault, he argues, was not the supervillainy that is often ascribed to conservatives but “their communal ignorance, not ever reading any of the books that they banned.” If the board understood those books, maybe its response would have been more measured, which is why “access to knowledge is so important.” I couldn’t agree more. If that makes me “woke,” then I don’t need to sleep. Pass the coffee.

LINKS TO THE SOURCES

Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 et al. v. Steven A. Pico
law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/457/853

Bill of Rights Institute: Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982)
billofrightsinstitute.org/e-lessons/island-trees-school-district-v-pico-1982

Intellectual Freedom Blog: “The Pico Case—35 Years Later” by April Dawkins
oif.ala.org/oif/pico-case-thirty-five-years-later

ALA’s Banned and Challenged Books website
ala.org/advocacy/bbooks

The New York Times: “The Battle for the Soul of the Library” by Stanley Kurtz
nytimes.com/2022/02/24/opinion/battle-library-neutrality.html

The New York Times: “How ‘Woke’ Became an Insult” by John McWhorter
nytimes.com/2021/08/17/opinion/woke-politically-correct.html

NPR: “Laura Ingraham Told LeBron James to Shut Up and Dribble; He Went to the Hoop” by Emily Sullivan
npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/19/587097707/laura-ingraham-told-lebron-james-to-shutup-and-dribble-he-went-to-the-hoop

National Coalition Against Censorship: “Russ Rieger, Teen Plaintiff in Pico v. Island Trees, Talks About His Role in the Landmark Supreme Court Case” by Debra Lau Whelan
ncac.org/news/blog/russ-rieger-a-teen-plaintiff-in-pico-v-island-trees-talks-about-his-role-in-the-landmark-supreme-court-case


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Anthony Aycock is the author of The Accidental Law Librarian (Information Today, Inc., 2013). He is a freelance writer (anthonyaycock.com) as well as the director of the North Carolina Legislative Library.



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