When their high school started banning books, these students fought back and won

NEW YORK – Steven Pico, then a student council president, remembers sitting at a Long Island school board meeting in the mid-'70's when a librarian whispered to him that board members had entered the library after hours seeking out books to ban.

Talk of the ban turned out to be true. After attending a 1975 conference sponsored by a conservative political group, Island Trees School board members removed titles such as Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" and Richard Wright's "Black Boy," deeming these and other books to be "anti-American," "anti-Christian," anti-Semitic and "just plain filthy."

Pico and four other students would get all the books returned to shelves after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the board couldn't reject titles in a "narrowly partisan or political manner.” The decision marked one of the few times the court weighed in on book bans in school libraries and resonates today as book challenges are being passed at a record-breaking pace. Then, as with now, many book bans are by authors of color and religious minorities.

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Today, conservative lawmakers in several states have found political currency in banning books under the guise of parents' anger that their students are learning about unsavory aspects of the nation's history such as slavery and segregation.

Pico and other literary advocates have grown increasingly concerned about the uptick in the number of book challenges, the politics behind them and the way race features prominently in challenged tomes.

This latest attack on books comes a year after works such as Nikole Hannah-Jones' 1619 project and books discussing racism have grown in popularity and were introduced in some curriculums amid racial justice protests.

"Politicians are using book banning as part of the game plan to frighten parents, to scare voters, to pit one group of Americans against other groups of Americans and divide communities for political gain," Pico said.

Johanna Miller, director of the education policy center at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said book banning is less about keeping children safe and more about telling certain people they do not belong.

"This is an issue where the white majority is using its power to push against people who have different life experiences and to say that not only are those experiences themselves not something that we're going to honor and respect, but we're not even going to talk about them or learn about them," she said.

Book censorship then-and-now

Between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, more the 330 unique cases of book challenges were reported, doubling the number of accounts from 2020, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom said. Staff at the organization concede that the true number is likely higher, given librarians and educators might have quietly removed books to sidestep controversy.

Pen America, a literary and free speech advocacy group, said it tracked nearly 1,600 instances of individual books being banned between July and March 31. The number includes removal of books from school libraries and prohibitions in classes and represents cases reported to the organization or covered in the media.

More than 40% of the bans in Pen America’s index were tied to directives from state officials and elected lawmakers to investigate or remove books from schools, the organization said.

Common themes in the banned or challenged text are race and sex. Works featuring topics related to gender identity and queerness are also popular challenged texts today.

Books by authors of color such as George M. Johnson's "All Boys Aren't Blue," and Angie Thomas' "The Hate U Give" feature prominently on the challenged text list today, as well as perennially contested works like Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye." Other books that have seen many challenges in educational spaces include "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl", Harry Potter novels, and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Recently, opponents of the books have referred to texts that they feel should not be in schools as "indoctrination" and grooming. They have also called novels dealing with race critical race theory.

CRT is a lens to look at racism's enduring legacy. There's little evidence that educators use it in primary or secondary school curricula, though that has not stopped some conservative politicians from using it as a cudgel to halt classroom discussion on topics such as the disenfranchisement of people of color in the nation.

Incensed parents who do not want their children to learn about race and LGBTQ+ issues in schools have registered their discontent at school board meetings, citing sexual content in books deemed as educational and parents’ right to decide what their children read.

And some school boards have relented to their demands, despite a poll commissioned by the American Library Association finding that nearly 75% of parents of public school children express a “high degree of confidence in school librarians to make good decisions about which books to make available to children.”

Politicians have also fanned the flames of censorship, literary advocates say. In Virginia’s gubernatorial race last year, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, released a campaign commercial featuring a mother who pushed to have Morrison's "Beloved" removed from her son's school curriculum, citing sexual content in the work.

In Texas, a lawmaker brought together a list of 850 books and asked whether school officials had them and other books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”

In Tennessee, a school board voted to remove the Holocaust graphic novel "Maus."

In all, 86 school districts in 26 states have introduced legislation banning books, Pen America said.

Experts say it is common that people who want to ban books often do not read the text before launching their effort. Instead, they only read an excerpt, hear about it through word of mouth, or watched a movie adaptation.

Tiffany Justice, co-founder of the conservative-leaning parents' rights group Moms for Liberty, said parents are concerned their children are not learning skills to be successful in and outside the classroom. She said her organization is working to "improve the education every child receives in public school."

Last year, Moms for Liberty in Williamson County, Tennessee sought to remove an autobiography written by Ruby Bridges. At age 6, Bridges strolled past a mob yelling racial slurs to integrate a New Orleans elementary school in 1960.

The group said the text contains “explicit and implicit anti-American, anti-white and anti-Mexican teaching,” the Nashville Tennessean reported.

"If schools truly want to be successful in teaching children, they will work to partner with every parent in the education of their children," Justice said. "We want to partner with our children's schools, but we do not co-parent with the government."

Emily Kirkpatrick, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, encouraged the involvement of parents in their child's education but added that teachers have been academically and professionally prepared to select materials that offer students the most benefit. Kirkpatrick said book censorship takes the expertise out of educators' hands.

"If a parent has informed objection about a book, a parent has the space and the freedom to determine what's appropriate for their child, but not for a whole classroom," she said.

While book censorship is not limited solely to one political ideology, this uptick is similar to another time, said Jonathan Friedman, Pen America's director of free speech.

Literary advocates and others said this wave of book bans is reminiscent of challenges in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, pushed by the Moral Majority lobbying group amid the rise of former President Ronald Reagan.

Pico said book banners seek "simplistic solutions to complex questions" of how to deal with race, sexuality and other challenging aspects of life, he said. Students are likely already confronting the themes presented in the text, and books give them a defense for working through some of those issues.

Furthermore, Kirkpatrick, of the National Council of Teachers of English, said censoring text dealing with race or sexual identity can have a deleterious impact on LGBTQ students, religious minorities and students of color.

Books are windows "for readers to see different circumstances," mirrors to "reflect a reader's own experiences," and sliding glass doors for "us to experience new cultures," she said, citing research from Rudine Sims Bishop, who is widely considered to be the "mother of multicultural literature."

Books banned, students fight back

Pico has been here before.

When Island Trees school board members attended the Parents of New York United-sponsored conference in September 1975, they received a list of books that they found "objectionable" and "improper fare for school students," court documents show.

In the Island Trees case, the high school library had most of the listed books, while the junior high school had some, court documents found.

"No student ever complained about these books,” Pico said. “No parent ever complained about these books. No teacher, librarian. No one. No community member had any objection to any of these books."

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Pico, 17, and the students later retained the New York Civil Liberties Union to represent them and moved forward with the lawsuit, saying that the board violated their First Amendment rights to access library-owned materials.

Vonnegut, author of "Slaughterhouse-Five," was at the lawsuit's announcement.

In a later deposition in the case, two school board members gave an example of anti-Americanism in a removed book. They pointed to Alice Childress’ "A Hero Ain't Nothin' But A Sandwich," which notes that George Washington was a slaveholder.

"I believe it is anti-American to present one of the nation's heroes, the first president… in such a negative and obviously one-sided life,” one of them said.

For Pico, the case had a chilling effect on his education and the teachers being taught.

He said his parents received anonymous calls saying he should drop the case. His parents feared he would not get into a good college because of the lawsuit.

According to Pico, a school board member at one point threatened that they would personally sue him should he lose the case.

Teachers, Pico said, quietly would tell him he's doing the right thing.

"Educators get scared," he said. "Maybe educators are even tempted to go towards self-censorship because of the chilling effect. Maybe they're afraid to put Black authors such as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Alice Childress in public schools."

Island Trees goes to Supreme Court

The case worked its way through the courts, and in 1982, the Supreme Court decision held that the First Amendment included students' rights to read library books of the students' choosing.

“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,'” according to the majority opinion, citing an older case.

The Supreme Court remanded the case for trial, but the school board eventually decided to return the disputed text to shelves without restrictions.

Arthur Eisenberg, who helped present the case before the Supreme Court and is the executive counsel of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a recent interview with USA TODAY that the high court's decision that a school board can’t remove a book because it might politically disagree with its contents stands firm, though it may be difficult to apply to other cases when there are multiple influences behind the ban.

“It gets vastly more complicated if there are mixed motives associated with a decision and more difficult to litigate under those circumstances,” he said.  

Pico kept up with the case, but he had graduated college with a bachelor's degree when the Supreme Court came to its decision.

The First Amendment protection issues have become part of his life's work. He has been outspoken about the issue of book banning and worked at the National Coalition Against Censorship.

He advises children incensed by book bans today that they have options. Today, the Brooklyn Public Library offers free digital library cards to people between 13 and 21 in the United States to combat this wave of book challenges.

He also encourages young people to start banned book clubs or even adopt a challenged book.

"You should be standing up and defending the ideas with which you agree and with which we disagree; that's how we establish our rights," he said.

Tiffany Cusaac-Smith covers race and history for the USA TODAY. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @T_Cusaac.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CRT, book ban debates today echo Supreme Court battle from 1982

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