Board of Education v. Pico

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Board of Education v. Pico

Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), was a case in which the United States Supreme Court held that the First Amendment limits the power of local school boards to remove library books from junior high schools and high schools.

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Linked case(s):

393 U.S. 503
319 U.S. 624


457 U.S. 853

Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico by Pico


No. 80-2043 Argued: March 2, 1982 --- Decided: June 25, 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.


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 [p854] 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.

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 [p855] 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.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).