When New York City school officials pulled 11 books they didn’t like from library shelves, 17-year-old Steven Pico joined a legal battle that ultimately broke him. brought him and his school to the Supreme Court of the United States.
In 1976, Pico was a high school student at the Island Trees Union Free School District in Levittown, New York, when the school board ordered the removal of several books from middle and high school libraries, including “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut. and “Best Short Stories of Negro Writers” edited by Langston Hughes. The books were part of a list of “objectionable” books that some council members had obtained months earlier when they attended a conference by the conservative group Parents of New York United. When Pico learned of the board’s actions, he and a few other students sued in 1977 with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union to try to get the books back in libraries.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the end of Pico’s fight in court, as the Supreme Court recognized First Amendment rights for students in Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico and ruled that school boards couldn’t remove the books because they didn’t like the ideas in those titles. .
But for Pico, now 62 and a painter, publisher and First Amendment advocate, the case continues to resonate as America faces a new wave of literary challenges.
Over the past year, writers of color exploring history, racism, or their own experiences in America have been targeted with a record number of challenges. Texas Governor Greg Abbott called on his state’s school boards to remove books he called “pornography” and school districts across the country removed books flagged as “inappropriate” from their shelves. libraries.
“I believe schools have a responsibility to teach all ideas, not just ideas they agree with,” Pico said.
Pico spoke with CNN about the impact of the landmark 1982 Supreme Court case on his life and whether efforts to ban the books in the United States have changed over the decades. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why was book censorship such an important issue for you as a high school student that you decided to challenge your school district in court?
I think the freedom to read a book is the foundation of our democracy. He is under attack today. Basic freedoms are under attack around the world and inside the United States. It was the same in 1977 and it’s the same now. When people ban books, the victims here are the books, the ideas, the students, the teachers, the librarian and our form of democracy. What happened in my school district was political. Schools and school board members have an obligation to teach all ideas in the United States, not just the ideas that fit with its policy.
Six years passed before the Supreme Court ruled on the case. You graduated from high school and even college, but you haven’t forgotten about the case. How was your life during this time as a principal applicant?
It was busy. I held a press conference in 1977 when I was 17 with author Kurt Vonnegut Jr (whose book “Slaughterhouse-Five” had been pulled from library shelves) and we announced the lawsuit against the school. I graduated a few months later, went to Haverford College in Pennsylvania and graduated. I took time throughout college to do interviews, fundraise for the case, give speeches, and raise awareness about the case. After graduating from college, my first job was at the National Coalition Against Censorship where I worked for another three years trying to change laws and put in place policies to prevent (books) being sent back to the future.
Prior to this interview, you mentioned that many of your classmates were apathetic or had other priorities like getting into college, and for the most part, you felt unsupported.
When the lawsuit became public, I didn’t see much support and even my own parents had a lot of doubts. They weren’t particularly supportive of the lawsuit because they thought it was seen as troublemaking and that I might not go to college or might not get some scholarships to which I was entitled because I was taking a very unpopular position in my community.
I think today’s students are much more sophisticated. They know better their rights as citizens. I actually have a lot more hope today that these battles are going to be fought and won. I know that there are young people at the moment who form book clubs, groups where they go to read forbidden books and decide for themselves. I know there are young people who are rising up to fight against these attempts to censor books and it’s really encouraging because it didn’t happen when I was in school.
Most students were simply unaware of their rights, but young people today are fully aware of their rights. I’m really proud of them. I know they’re not just going to sit down and take this.
Students are organizing and fighting against book bans in a number of ways. For example, two Missouri students sued their school district earlier this year over the removal of books written by and about communities of color and LGBTQ people. What is your message for them?
One thing I was told in the 1970s was that “it’s going to be the most important thing you’ll ever do in your life.” Whether it’s true or not, I want young people to hear what I’ve heard and know that their advocacy is not just about their rights, but the rights of all students across the United States.
Conservative views play a role in current efforts to remove certain books from school libraries. Some books are singled out by politicians for allegedly having “profane, vulgar or indecent” content. Has the book debate in America changed 40 years after your case reached the Supreme Court?
There is a political agenda behind the censorship of books. At least one political party in America is trying to scare parents and influence their vote in the upcoming election. I think local and state Republican Party politicians are currently trying to galvanize their constituents by scaring the parents whose votes they may have lost in the last election. I think that’s a scare tactic. Having local politicians decide which books cannot be used in schools was precisely the situation I faced in 1976. No one in my community in New York in 1976 opposed any of the 11 books which have been withdrawn and banned. No student, no teacher, no librarian, no parent, no member of my entire community, which included four secondary schools, ever complained about any of the books that were eventually banned. My school board went outside the community and found a list of so-called objectionable books. They haven’t read the books in their entirety. They used a handful of excerpts, a handful of words, a handful of vulgarities to make these books look bad. You have to judge the books in their entirety and that’s not what those politicians and school boards of yesterday and today are doing.
You say that over the decades America still has the same or very similar debate about books and censorship. How can we move forward? Is there a solution to this long-standing dispute?
I think the solution in America is always to have more ideas, to have more discussions and to have more freedom of expression. It’s not about controlling what people read and think, we have to do it the American way. Young and old people have to go out and buy forbidden books. They have to make judgments about themselves. They must read the books in their entirety. They must adopt a forbidden book.
To think that today’s children are naive is foolish. They go home, they turn on the news or read it on their phone… they know what’s going on in the world. They know that the ideas they hear are serious, complex and need to be understood. I think these controversial personal stories, like drug addiction, racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, violence against young people and adults because of their sexual preferences, these things need to be discussed. Young people need to be prepared to deal with these issues when they turn 18 and when they leave high school. I think the best place to discuss these issues is in the classroom, where they can discuss them with their peers, and there’s a trained professional there to help them understand what they’re reading and why.