Standing Up for Freedom
As a teen, Steven Pico ’81 became the plaintiff in the only book-banning case to reach the Supreme Court. Forty years later, book bans are on the rise.
Steven Pico ’81 may not be a widely known name, but to those who advocate for civil liberties, he’s a hero.
In 1977, Pico, then 17, and four other teens sued their Levittown, N.Y., school district over the school board’s decision to ban 11 books from its school libraries and classrooms.
“I did not want politicians to decide what I can read,” says Pico, 63, now a visual artist who blogs as an art critic at artloverstravel. com. “I was aware that this issue was bigger than a small suburban community, even as a teenager.”
The case made its way to the United States Supreme Court. The 1982 decision in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26, et al. v. Pico provided, for the first time, protection for the right of students under the First Amendment to get access to library books that dealt with controversial subjects. It also made clear that school boards do not have unfettered discretion to arbitrarily censor books based on their content or on the viewpoints expressed in them. Pico has been the only book-banning case to reach the high court.
Now, on the 40th anniversary of that landmark decision, a barrage of book-banning efforts over recent months is posing a threat to students’ right to read what they want and potentially to the legacy of Pico, according to civil liberties advocates. “What we’re seeing is organized and well-funded campaigns to change curriculum,” says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) at the American Library Association (ALA) and executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation. “I wouldn’t be surprised over time to see an effort to erase what Pico stands for and what it’s accomplished, if this trend toward using censorship as a tool to dictate what students can learn about, what teachers can teach, continues.”
The nonprofit PEN America, which advocates for freedom of expression, has counted over a nine-month period ending in April an unprecedented 1,586 book bans in schools, targeting 1,145 titles. Many of those books tackle themes of race and racism in American history (22 percent), LGBTQ+ identities (33 percent), and sexual content (25 percent).
Meanwhile, OIF tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2021—the highest number of attempted book bans since the list was first compiled 20 years ago. Most of the more than 1,597 individual books targeted were by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ individuals. Most-challenged titles include Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, OIF says.
“To the extent there is an oasis for these … ideas, it is in the school library,” says Christopher Finan, executive director of the New York City-based National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). “The oasis is shrinking. We’re down to one palm tree, maybe two.”
The country faced a similar censorship spike in the ’80s, with 1,300 challenges in one year, he says. “Things were pretty damn bad when Steven Pico’s case was brought,” he says. Defenders of free speech rallied then, Finan adds, and are doing so once again. The ALA recently announced its Unite Against Book Bans initiative, and high school students are starting banned-book clubs.
Pico, too, says he sees worrisome parallels to the ’70s and ’80s in today’s attacks on books. Back then, the so-called “moral majority” was on the rise. Today, a conservative political movement is backing efforts to ban books it considers obscene or supportive of critical race theory. One key difference from Pico’s day, however, is the active involvement of Republican politicians and officeholders.
“We’re at a very dangerous juncture,” Pico says. “I think people need to focus attention on what’s going on and stand up for freedom before it’s lost.”
Certainly that’s what he did.
In high school, Pico was already involved in politics, serving as president of the student council and on the school newspaper’s editorial board. He often attended school board meetings and knew its members.
When the board decided to pull Slaughterhouse-Five, Go Ask Alice, Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich and others, calling them “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy,” Pico spoke up. More than half of the challenged books were written by Black, Hispanic or Jewish American authors. The board’s decision, based on a list of books labeled “inappropriate” by a conservative political conference, went counter, Pico says, to everything he had been taught in school about democracy.
“I thought book banning, book burning occurs in totalitarian countries,” he says. “This is not the American way. To me, it was a patriotic choice to defend the right to read.”
It was a lonely road, Pico says. Few classmates rallied around him, many either apathetic or in agreement with the school board. Even his parents worried that legal action would label him a troublemaker. Pico, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, says he remained determined.
“I was born to be the plaintiff in this case,” he says. “I just saw it as defending the voiceless, or preserving the voices of people who couldn’t defend themselves. I was a Caucasian person defending Black literature in an all-white community. Langston Hughes wasn’t here anymore to defend his own voice.”
At Haverford, Pico’s involvement in the case only intensified. He recalls then-President Robert B. Stevens urging students to pursue interests outside their studies. “Community activism was encouraged,” he says. The political science and English literature double major says he spent more than half his weekends away from campus managing the case, which included giving media interviews and raising funds.
Haverford appealed to Pico because of its Quaker roots and values, such as the Honor Code. (Born Catholic, he became a practicing Quaker.) Another reason was his personal politics, which were shaped by his distaste for former President Richard M. Nixon’s lies to the public and his admiration for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s battle for civil rights. “Dr. King’s attention to nonviolence interested me,” he says, “and drew me more to Haverford College.”
Initially, U.S. District Court ruled in favor of Island Trees, citing the school board’s authority to decide curriculum also extended to books in the classroom and school libraries. The judgment was challenged, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided 2-1 in favor of Pico, citing concern over the school board’s motivation for the ban, and remanded for trial. Island Trees appealed to the Supreme Court.
Four justices ruled the ban unconstitutional and concluded the books should be returned to the shelves. Wrote Justice William J. Brennan Jr., “Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas.” One justice concurred but wanted the case to proceed in the lower court. The result was a plurality decision that is not binding. While some contend that puts Pico on shaky ground, others say it still carries an important legacy.
“The principle that was accepted by the five justices is, and continues to be, a proper principle,” says Arthur Eisenberg, executive counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union who was a junior staff member in the early ’80s working on Pico.
He was charged with developing a set of First Amendment principles that would accommodate the notion that school officials and board members may have some discretion over curriculum and the content of school libraries and could constitutionally remove books based on their lack of educational suitability or if they were deemed “pervasively vulgar.” But, he continues, those same groups could not remove books simply because they didn’t like the ideas contained within them. Thanks to Pico, that argument has become a test for the constitutionality of removing books from schools.
Even though he was disappointed over not winning a majority decision, Eisenberg says he considers Pico his favorite case. “I think,” he says, “it required the most creative lawyering I was engaged in.”
Says Caldwell-Stone: “Fractured as it is, Pico establishes both a test to challenging censorship and strengthens the idea that young people have First Amendment rights that they can exercise, and that school boards don’t function without constitutional guardrails.”
Still, she allows that some are using the terms “educational suitability” and “pervasive vulgarity” to justify book bans. “I don’t think the court expected them to be used as magic words,” she says. “But we do see in the current situation with the rise in book bans certain school boards using them as a legal shield against litigation.”
After Pico graduated, he considered law school but chose to join NCAC, signing up groups to file amicus briefs for his case and helping to lobby for legislation to protect the privacy of library records. Saying he had done what he wanted to do, Pico moved on after a few years to work as an editor at United Business Media and focus on his artwork, which includes mixed media, pastels, and constructions. Married to a physicist, he divides his time between Manhattan and Iberia.
Finan says the current book-banning crisis calls for the same fierce fight—and a fighter like Pico. “It takes real courage to stand out from the crowd and say this is wrong,” he says. “Steven joins a long line of free speech heroes over two centuries of our history, people who just couldn’t stay silent.”
Pico remains optimistic that young people today will rise to the challenge, saying many are keenly aware of their rights. “Young people are not going to stand for this today,” he says, adding that “nothing is more important than being involved in an issue in its time.”
Over the decades, Pico has continued to speak out for First Amendment rights. He is often asked if he’s surprised about the continued efforts at censorship. He says he isn’t.
Pico cites a favorite King quote from the civil rights movement that notes “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” “I think it does bend toward justice,” he says. “The recognition of a constitutional right takes an enormous amount of time. Even then [in 1977], I understood that.”