School libraries and free ideas

Bernard Malamud's Pulitzer prize-winnng novel, ''The Fixer,'' provides an example of the dilemmas that can arise in school book-banning cases such as the one recently ruled on by the US Supreme Court. The title character is a Jewish handyman in pre-revolutionary Russia whose imprisonment is part of a plot patterned on an actual episode of the day. As the Monitor review noted, ''For two-and-a-half years - and Malamud spares no degrading details - Yakov languishes in prison, mostly in solitary, cursed, beaten, tormented, poisoned.'' Yet Yakov emerges as a hero ''not dehumanized but more fully and authentically a human being.'' He ''bears witness not only to his own humanity but to the humanity of his community - and ultimately to the humanity of his persecutors.''

The question for a parent might concern whether the positive side of the book is worth a son's or daughter's exposure to the ''degrading details.'' The question for a school is whether on balance the book has the merit to belong in an educational institution.

The Supreme Court did not rule on whether ''The Fixer'' and a number of other books were properly removed from the shelves of a Long Island school library by the local school board. It did say that a lower court's summary judgment upholding the school board was insufficient, since it did not bring out the motives for the banning. It said that students who sued for access to the books on First Amendment grounds were entitled to a trial.

The reasoning seemed to be that a school board did have some discretion to remove books, and the First Amendment would not be violated if the decision were based solely on educational suitability or on grounds the books were ''pervasively vulgar.'' However, the discretion could not be exercised in a narrowly partisan manner to deny students access to ideas with which the board members disagreed. A useful distinction was made giving the board wider discretion on books required in the classroom than on books in the library where ''the regime of voluntary inquiry'' holds sway.

On this basis it appears that the least the court could do was to turn the case back to a lower court for judgment according to the motives of the board. It was a ruling to give hope to the school libraries that have been suffering a recent wave of book bannings. The underlying question is always that, even if most parents might agree with the banning of one given book, the practice of banning without prospect of court review could result in the removal of books on which there was wider disagreement. There is also the question of how far education is served by preventing students from finding in their school library the books that students in other libraries have access to. And sometimes removing a book can give it a spurious air of forbidden fruit.

The court decision does not relieve parents and school authorities from confronting the dilemma of ''The Fixer,'' for example. It should help schools preserve the First Amendment's guarantee of the right to receive information and ideas.

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