Book banning: justices say schools must have sound educational reason

Will the nationwide controversy over banning certain books in public schools heat up or cool down?

That's the question being asked now that the US Supreme Court has reaffirmed the rights of students and parents to challenge in court school officials who remove books from library shelves.

In a narrow 5-to-4 decision June 25, the high court sent a clear signal to school authorities across the country that they cannot arbitrarily and ''in a narrowly partisan manner'' remove books from library shelves. At the same time, however, the court did not preclude local school authorities from drawing up guidelines governing book removal, if for ''sound educational reasons.''

Writing for the majority, Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. said, ''Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas.'' He added that ''local school boards may not remove books simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.''

The decision is being applauded by educators, librarians, and civil libertarians who have been fighting the growing trend toward localities removing books from school libraries on grounds they are ''offensive'' or ''objectionable.''

''This is a clear victory for the First Amendment and academic freedom,'' says Dorothy Massie of the National Education Association. Adds Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, ''The decision means that First Amendment rights apply to all individuals regardless of age. It does not mean there will be a wholesale rush into the courts.''

Despite growing numbers of book censorship complaints, school boards rarely have policies governing book banning and few cases actually come to trial. Ms. Massie explains, ''The decision makes it doubly clear that carefully crafted school policies on curriculums and materials must exist.''

Although the court warned school boards against arbitrary removal of books, it also underscored their right to exercise ''significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries.'' The court, in other words, did not spell out precisely what constitutional limits apply to book banning.

''The issue is, what are the constitutional limitations on what books can be on library shelves,'' says Steve Shiffren, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. ''The decision reaffirms the rights of school boards to clearly formulate school policies, but ad hoc intervention raises significant constitutional questions. The motives behind any attempts at book removal must now be examined.''

The court case stemmed from a dispute in Nassau County, N.Y., where the Island Trees Union Free School District had banned nine books from school courses and libraries. The decision clears the way for a trial in the seven-year-old battle.

The books are ''The Naked Ape,'' by Desmond Morris and ''Slaughterhouse-Five, '' by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

''By sending the case back to court, the Supreme Court is saying, 'Try to assess the intent of the school board to remove the books,' '' says Thomas Shannon, executive director of the National Association of School Boards. If that intent is for other than ''sound educational reasons,'' he says, ''then that removal must be challenged.''

The Island Trees school superintendent, Walf Oglesby, criticized the high-court decision, saying, ''The court let us down. They have supplied no direction.''

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