Board of Education v. Pico
Decided on June 25, 1982; 457 US 853


A. Issues Discussed: Free Speech

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the First Amendment impose any limitations upon the discretion of a local school board to remove library books from the High School and Junior High School?


A. Background:

"Petitioners are the Board of Education of the Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26, in New York... The Board is a state agency charged with responsibility for the operation and administration of the public schools within the Island Trees School District, including the Island Trees High School and Island Trees Memorial Junior High School. Respondents are Steven Pico... When this suit was brought, Pico, Gold, Yarris, and Rieger were students at the High School, and Sochinski was a student at the Junior High School.

In September 1975, petitioners Ahrens, Martin, and Hughes attended a conference sponsored by Parents of New York United (PONYU), a politically conservative organization of parents concerned about education legislation in the State of New York. At the conference these petitioners obtained lists of books described by Ahrens as 'objectionable,' and by Martin as 'improper fare for school students,' It was later determined that the High School library contained nine of the listed books, and that another listed book was in the Junior High School library. In February 1976, at a meeting with the Superintendent of Schools and the Principals of the High School and Junior High School, the Board gave an 'unofficial direction' that the listed books be removed from the library shelves and delivered to the Board's offices, so that Board members could read them. When this directive was carried out, it became publicized, and the Board issued a press release justifying its action. It characterized the removed books as 'anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy,' and concluded that '[i]t 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.'

A short time later, the Board appointed a 'Book Review Committee,' consisting of four Island Trees parents and four members of the Island Trees schools staff, to read the listed books and to recommend to the Board whether the books should be retained, taking into account the books' 'educational suitability,' 'good taste,' 'relevance,' and 'appropriateness to age and grade level.' In July, the Committee made its final report to the Board... The Board substantially rejected the Committee's report later that month, deciding that only one book should be returned to the High School library without restriction, that another should be made available subject to parental approval, but that the remaining nine books should 'be removed from elementary and secondary libraries and [from] use in the curriculum.' The Board gave no reasons for rejecting the recommendations of the Committee that it had appointed.

Respondents reacted to the Board's decision by bringing the present action under 42 U.S.C. 1983 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. They alleged that petitioners had, 'ordered the removal of the books from school libraries and proscribed their use in the curriculum because particular passages in the books offended their social, political and moral tastes and not because the books, taken as a whole, were lacking in educational value.'

Respondents claimed that the Board's actions denied them their rights under the First Amendment. They asked the court for a declaration that the Board's actions were unconstitutional, and for preliminary and permanent injunctive relief ordering the Board to return the nine books to the school libraries and to refrain from interfering with the use of those books in the schools' curricula.

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of petitioners...

A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the judgment of the District Court, and remanded the action for a trial on respondents' allegations. Each judge on the panel filed a separate opinion..."

On certiorari the US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by J. Albert Woll, Marsha Berzon, Laurence Gold, and George Kaufmann for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations et al.; by Don H. Reuben and James A. Klenk for the American Library Association et al.; by Harold P. Weinberger, Justin J. Finger, and Jeffrey P. Sinensky for the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'Rith; by R. Bruce Rich for the Association of American Publishers, Inc., et al.; by Irwin Karp for the Authors League of America, Inc.; by Robert M. Weinberg, Michael H. Gottesman, and David Rubin for the National Education Association; by James R. Sandner, Jeffrey S. Karp, and Elizabeth A. Truly for New York State United Teachers; and by Jerry Simon Chasen and Marcia B. Paul for P. E. N. American Center.

Alan H. Levine argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Steven R. Shapiro, Burt Neuborne, Alan Azzara, Bruce J. Ennis, Jr., and Charles S. Sims.

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by Bruce A. Taylor for Charles H. Keating, Jr., et al.; and by David Crump for the Legal Foundation of America.

George W. Lipp, Jr., argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs was David S. J. Rubin.


"The Court has long recognized that local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs. Epperson v. Arkansas reaffirmed that, by and large, 'public education in our Nation is committed to the control of state and local authorities,' and that federal courts should not ordinarily 'intervene in the resolution of conflicts which arise in the daily operation of school systems.' Tinker v. Des Moines School Dist. noted that we have 'repeatedly emphasized ... the comprehensive authority of the States and of school officials ... to prescribe and control conduct in the schools.' We have also acknowledged that public schools are vitally important 'in the preparation of individuals for participation as citizens,' and as vehicles for 'inculcating fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system.' We are therefore in full agreement with petitioners that local school boards must be permitted 'to establish and apply their curriculum in such a way as to transmit community values,' and that 'there is a legitimate and substantial community interest in promoting respect for authority and traditional values be they social, moral, or political.'

At the same time, however, we have necessarily recognized that the discretion of the States and local school boards in matters of education must be exercised in a manner that comports with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment...

In sum, just as access to ideas makes it possible for citizens generally to exercise their rights of free speech and press in a meaningful manner, such access prepares students for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which they will soon be adult members. Of course all First Amendment rights accorded to students must be construed 'in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.' But the special characteristics of the school library make that environment especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students.

A school library, no less than any other public library, is 'a place dedicated to quiet, to knowledge, and to beauty.' ...Petitioners emphasize the inculcative function of secondary education, and argue that they must be allowed unfettered discretion to 'transmit community values' through the Island Trees schools. But that sweeping claim overlooks the unique role of the school library. It appears from the record that use of the Island Trees school libraries is completely voluntary on the part of students. Their selection of books from these libraries is entirely a matter of free choice; the libraries afford them an opportunity at self-education and individual enrichment that is wholly optional. Petitioners might well defend their claim of absolute discretion in matters of curriculum by reliance upon their duty to inculcate community values. But we think that petitioners' reliance upon that duty is misplaced where, as here, they attempt to extend their claim of absolute discretion beyond the compulsory environment of the classroom, into the school library and the regime of voluntary inquiry that there holds sway...

[N]othing in our decision today affects in any way the discretion of a local school board to choose books to add to the libraries of their schools. Because we are concerned in this case with the suppression of ideas, our holding today affects only the discretion to remove books. In brief, we hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to 'prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.' Such purposes stand inescapably condemned by our precedents."

The US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice Vote: 5 Pro vs. 4 Con

  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.D. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU, as counsel, urged affirmance of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals judgment; the Supreme Court affirmed in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.