Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982)

2012-01-05 04:33:30

In Board of Education v. Pico, the sharply divided Court held that the school board violated the students’ First Amendment rights by removing from high school and junior high school libraries several books that the board found ‘‘anti-American, anti- Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.’’ The books were not obscene, but the board stated that ‘‘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.’’

Justice William J. Brennan’s plurality opinion (joined by Justices Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens) concluded that removal of the library books implicated students’ First Amendment right to ‘‘receive information and ideas.’’ The plurality acknowledged that students’ First Amendment rights must be construed ‘‘in light of the special characteristics of the school environment,’’ but concluded that the school board denies these rights when it acts with intent to deny students access to ideas with which the board disagrees. The plurality stressed that the decision concerned only the board’s authority to remove library books, which by their nature are optional rather than required reading; the decision did not concern acquisition of library books, or removal from the curriculum of required texts.

Justices Harry A. Blackmun and Byron R. White concurred. Justice Blackmun stated that ‘‘school officials may not remove books for the purpose of restricting access to the political ideas or social perspectives discussed in them, when that action is motivated simply by the officials’ disapproval of the ideas involved’’ (emphasis in original). Justice White would have awaited a full trial before reaching the constitutional question.

To Chief Justice Warren E. Burger (joined by Justices William H. Rehnquist, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., and Sandra Day O’Connor), the case turned on ‘‘whether local schools are to be administered by elected school boards, or by federal judges and teenage pupils; and . . . whether the values of morality, good taste, and relevance to education are valid reasons for school board decisions concerning the contents of a school library.’’ The chief justice wrote: ‘‘As a matter of educational policy students should have wide access to information and ideas. But the people elect school boards, who in turn select administrators, who select the teachers, and these are the individuals best able to determine the substance of that policy’’ (emphasis in original).

Justice Powell accused the plurality of ‘‘reject[ing] a basic concept of public school education in our country: that the States and locally elected school boards should have the responsibility for determining the educational policy of the public schools.’’ Pico, Justice Powell continued, allows ‘‘any junior high school student, by instituting a suit against a school board or teacher, [to] invite a judge to overrule an educational decision by the official body designated by the people to operate the schools.’’

Pico constrains the discretion of public school authorities to remove materials from school libraries. Some lower courts also cite Pico for a First Amendment right of students to receive information, although the right commanded only the three-justice plurality.


References and Further Reading

  • Chemerinsky, Erwin. Constitutional Law: Principles and Policies. 2nd ed. New York: Aspen, 2002
  • Nowak, John E., and Ronald D. Rotunda. Constitutional Law. 7th ed. St. Paul, MN: Thomson West, 2004

See also Children and the First Amendment