457 U.S. 853 (1982), 80-2043, Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free

Docket Nº:No. 80-2043
Citation:457 U.S. 853, 102 S.Ct. 2799, 73 L.Ed.2d 435
Party Name:Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free
Case Date:June 25, 1982
Court:United States Supreme Court

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457 U.S. 853 (1982)

102 S.Ct. 2799, 73 L.Ed.2d 435

Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free

No. 80-2043

United States Supreme Court

June 25, 1982

School District No. 26 v. Pico by Pico

Argued March 2, 1982




Petitioner Board of Education, rejecting recommendations of a committee of parents and school staff that it had appointed, ordered that certain books, which the Board characterized as "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy," be removed from high school and junior high school libraries. Respondent students then brought this action for declaratory and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Board and petitioner Board members, alleging that the Board's actions had denied respondents their rights under the First Amendment. The District Court granted summary judgment in petitioners' favor. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a trial on the merits of respondents' allegations.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

638 F.2d 404, affirmed.


1. The First Amendment imposes limitations upon a local school board's exercise of its discretion to remove books from high school and junior high school libraries. Pp. 863-872.

(a) Local school boards have broad discretion in the management of school affairs, but such discretion must be exercised in a manner that comports with the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment. Students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," Tinker v. Des Moines School Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506, and such rights may be directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library. While students' First Amendment rights must be construed "in light of the special characteristics of the school environment," ibid., the special characteristics of the school library make that environment especially appropriate for the recognition of such rights. Pp. 863-869.

(b) While petitioners might rightfully claim absolute discretion in matters of curriculum by reliance upon their duty to inculcate community values in schools, petitioners' reliance upon that duty is misplaced

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where 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. P. 869.

(c) Petitioners possess significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries, but that discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner. Whether petitioners' removal of books from the libraries denied respondents their First Amendment rights depends upon the motivation behind petitioners' actions. Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries 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." West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642. If such an intention was the decisive factor in petitioners' decision, then petitioners have exercised their discretion in violation of the Constitution. Pp. 869-872.

[102 S.Ct. 2802] 2. The evidentiary materials before the District Court must be construed favorably to respondents, given the procedural posture of this case. When so construed, those evidentiary materials raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether petitioners exceeded constitutional limitations in exercising their discretion to remove the books at issue from their school libraries. Respondents' allegations, and some of the evidentiary materials before the District Court, also fail to exclude the possibility that petitioners' removal procedures were highly irregular and ad hoc -- the antithesis of those procedures that might tend to allay suspicions regarding petitioners' motivation. Pp. 872-875.

JUSTICE BLACKMUN concluded that a proper balance between the limited constitutional restriction imposed on school officials by the First Amendment and the broad state authority to regulate education would be struck by holding that school officials may not remove books from school libraries for the purpose of restricting access to the political ideas or social perspectives discussed in the books when that action is motivated simply by the officials' disapproval of the ideas involved. Pp. 879-882.

JUSTICE WHITE, while agreeing that there should be a trial to resolve the factual issues, concluded that there is no necessity at this point for discussing the extent to which the First Amendment limits the school board's discretion to remove books from the school libraries. Pp. 883-884.

BRENNAN, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which MARSHALL and STEVENS, JJ., joined and in all but Part II-A(1) of which BLACKMUN, J., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 875. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 883. BURGER, C.J., filed a

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dissenting opinion, in which POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 885. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 893. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, J., joined, post, p. 904. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 921.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE BRENNAN announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which JUSTICE MARSHALL and JUSTICE STEVENS joined, and in which JUSTICE BLACKMUN joined except for Part II-A-(1).

The principal question presented is whether the First Amendment1 imposes limitations upon the exercise by a local

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school board of its discretion to remove library books from high school and junior high school libraries.


Petitioners are the Board of Education of the Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26, in New York, and Richard Ahrens, Frank Martin, Christina Fasulo, Patrick Hughes, Richard Melchers, Richard Michaels, and Louis Nessim. When this suit was brought, Ahrens was the President of the Board, Martin was the Vice President, and the remaining petitioners were Board members. 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, Jacqueline Gold, Glenn Yarris, Russell Rieger, and Paul Sochinski. 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," App. 22, and by Martin as "improper fare for school students," id. at 101.2 It was later determined that the [102 S.Ct. 2803] High School library contained nine of the listed books, and that another listed book was in the Junior High School library.3 In

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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.4 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." 474 F.Supp. 387, 390 (EDNY 1979).

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

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made its final report to the Board, recommending that five of the listed books be retained5 and that two others be removed from the school libraries.6 As for the remaining four books, the Committee could not agree on two,7 took no position on one,8 and recommended that the last book be made available to students only with parental approval.9 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,10 that another should be made available subject to parental approval11 but that the remaining nine books should "be removed from elementary and secondary libraries and [from] use in the curriculum." Id. at 391.12 The Board gave no reasons for rejecting the recommendations of the Committee that it had appointed.

[102 S.Ct. 2804] 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...

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