NEW YORK (PIX11) — The number of efforts to ban or remove books from public schools is at a record level nationwide, including some efforts underway now in the tri-state region. However, the New York metro area also figures prominently in efforts to fight book restrictions. In fact, the only challenge to a school book ban that ever made it to the U.S. Supreme Court was made by a Long Island high school student.
Now in his 60s, he says that the case that he won is more important than ever in demonstrating the importance of Americans protecting their free speech rights.
Steven Pico, 63, was a student at Island Trees High School in Levittown, on Long Island, when the school board issued a list of 11 books that it removed from school libraries and curricula in 1975.
“Half of the books were written by Blacks, and one Hispanic author,” Pico said in an interview, as he pointed to the 11 books, which he keeps in his personal library.
“There was a Native American love story,” he continued, “[and they] went after Langston Hughes, and went after James Baldwin by name, and they’re both prominent, important African American gay writers,” Pico said.
He was drawing a parallel between the book ban that he successfully fought with a growing number of cases now locally and nationwide to get books removed from school libraries, classrooms, and public libraries.
Also drawing the parallel is one of the country’s most prominent librarians.
Regarding current efforts to keep books out of libraries, Nick Higgins, the chief librarian of the Brooklyn Public Library system, one of the nation’s largest, said that there’s a theme that has a lot in common with the Long Island ban from four-and-a-half decades ago.
“A lot focus efforts on Black authors, indigenous authors, LGBTQ-plus-identifying authors and narratives and themes,” Higgins said in a recent interview.
In the 2021-2022 school year alone, there have been 2,532 efforts to ban books, according to a survey by PEN America, an advocacy organization for free expression. It says that the number of bans is 66 percent higher than its preliminary assessment of bans nationwide, a record high number.
Part of those efforts to remove books from school libraries and classrooms, as well as public libraries, was a request by a group in Wayne, New Jersey called Wayne Education Restoration Parent Association, or WERPA, to have at least two graphic novels restricted from unsupervised use by high school students.
The books, Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe, and A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin, were at the center of a school board meeting in October 2021 in Wayne that was almost canceled after it got heated.
A leader of WERPA, Mark Faber, said that the group isn’t against access to potentially controversial publications.
“We don’t think there’s a place where you should ban it and it shouldn’t exist,” he said.
Instead, he said, WERPA is calling for graphic publications with sexual and violent imagery to be placed in restricted areas of libraries.
“The same way we have the ratings on movies and things of that nature,” he said, “it really should be the same application to a book.”
“Because if [children are] not supposed to be seeing it in the movies, why should they be able to read it in a public school library?” he asked.
An argument for restricting displays of books with LGBTQ+ themes was made in Smithtown, Long Island public libraries last summer.
Some children’s books that had LGBTQ characters and themes were removed from public library displays.
That decision by the local library board, however, was reversed by the board a day after it was made.
That reversal was made using the same principle laid out in another decision, one made in Steven Pico’s case, when it was ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982.
“Justice Brennan wrote the principal opinion of the court,” Pico pointed out, about the only case the Supreme Court has ever heard regarding book bans in public schools.
“Brennan stated for the court,” Pico explained, “our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas, and that school boards may not remove books from school library shelves, simply because they disliked the ideas contained in those books.”
The precedent still stands, and is being used to challenge some of the book ban efforts being made now, including one in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, which is scheduled to be heard by its public library board on Wednesday, Feb. 8.
However, because so many bans are now in place nationwide, the Brooklyn Public Library created Books Unbanned, a program that gives online access to all of its collection, virtually, to anyone age 13 to 21. The effort is meant to serve people in communities with banned books, especially.
“We represent everyone in our community,” said Higgins, the BPL chief librarian. He and the other creators of the Books Unbanned program were named Librarians of the Year by the Library Journal this year.
Still, said Higgins, a different group of free expression advocates deserves the lion’s share of credit.
“We owe it all to the teens who’ve informed the development of this program,” he said, adding that the library’s advisory group for young people has expanded far beyond Brooklyn.
“The Teen Intellectual Freedom Council has grown to include, you know, teens from Mississippi and Georgia and Vermont and Minnesota.” Higgins said.
A supporter of the Books Unbanned program is from Long Island, and lives in Manhattan now, and set the stage for free expression advocacy more than 40 years ago.
Steven Pico says that his case from back then underscores why he continues to speak out now.
“I’m talking to young people out there,” said the man who took on his school board in the mid-1970s, “because I want you to fight the deniers. I want you to stand up for other voices.”
The books that were banned by the Island Trees Unified School District in 1975 were:
- Go Ask Alice, by an anonymous author
- A Reader for Writers, edited by Jerome Archer
- A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, by Alice Childress
- Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver
- Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes
- Laughing Boy, by Oliver LaFarge
- The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud
- The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris
- Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas
- Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
- Black Boy, by Richard Wright
The 10 most challenged books in 2021, according to the American Library Association were:
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
- Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
- This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson
- Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
- Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
- All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
- Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
- Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope PerezThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas