To read, or not to read; book bans and high court
School officials in a suburban Long Island community argue that they were following a ''time honored and cherished concept'' of local control of education. But Steve Pico, as a high school senior, called it censorship when the Board of Education of Island Trees Union Free School, N.Y., removed nine books from the school library because they had vulgarities and were ''just plain filthy.''
The dispute, which will be argued early next year in the US Supreme Court, is the first of a rising tide of book-banning cases to reach the high court. It could set an important precedent for schools throughout the country that are embroiled in similar fights over books.
In a Calfornia community, a school board has put Ms. Magazine on a restrictive access shelf (requiring parental permission). Oregon is facing a suit over its law requiring that no history text can speak ''slightingly of the founders of the republic.'' In Maine, a fight is brewing over whether a book written about the Vietnam war can be banned from school libraries.
And in perhaps the most publicized case, a citizen group in Warsaw, Ind., burned copies of a controversial textbook, ''Values Clarification,'' after the school board dropped it from use.
''A decade ago there was no such case,'' says Leanne Katz, coordinator of the National Coalition Against Censorship, sponsored in part by the National Council of Churches. She pinpoints the religious ''right'' as the prime mover for clearing library shelves of materials they see as objectionable.
The controversy now before the Supreme Court began in 1975 when three Island Trees school board members attended a conservative conference where they were handed excerpts from several contemporary books.
Upon returning home, the three began to push for removal of those books from school libraries on grounds that they had profanities and sexual descriptions, and that they offended racial and religious groups.
Eventually the board ordered off the shelves nine books, including ''The Fixer'' by Bernard Malamud, ''Soul on Ice,'' by Eldridge Cleaver, ''The Naked Ape'' by Desmond Morris, ''Down These Mean Streets'' by Piri Thomas, ''Best Short Stories by Negro Writers'' edited by Langston Hughes, ''Go Ask Alice'' by an anonymous author, ''A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich'' by Alice Childress, ''Black Boy'' by Richard Wright, ''Laughing Boy'' by Oliver LaFarge, and ''A Reader for Writers'' edited by Jerome Archer. ''Slaughterhouse Five'' by Kurt Vonnegut was put on a restricted shelf (parental permission required).
Steve Pico, then student council president at Island Trees High School, had already read about half the books on the list and was familiar with the other authors.
''There was an incredible respect for books in my home,'' he recalls. ''We could read anything we wanted.'' He did not like having a school board remove the books.
''They are sincere and well-meaning,'' says the former high school student who recently graduated from college. But he asserts that the board members were trying to ''protect their children by denying reality.
Those who support the school board respond that local control, not free expression, is at stake.
''We've been disturbed that all library cases are viewed as First Amendment (freedom of speech and press) cases,'' says Ivan B. Gluckman, attorney for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, a group that has backed the school board. Removing the books was ''not restrictive of student expression or teacher expression,'' he says. School boards already control textbooks and courses, he adds. ''To say that the library is not (under the board) didn't make sense.''
Further, Mr. Gluckman argues that schools should be paying more attention to values. ''We feel that the dissatisfaction of local communities and parents with the public schools is because schools are not addressing (values). . . . Students should be guided toward what seem to be the values of the community.'' If parents disapprove of the guidance, they should vote out the school board, he says.
The Island Trees school board takes a similar stand. ''The essence of a local school board's responsibility is to transmit community values to those in its charge,'' says a legal brief filed by the board.
The board defended its action in a March 1976 press release by quoting Terrel H. Bell, then US commissioner of education and now secretary of educaton: ''Parents have a right to expect that the schools, in their teaching approaches and their selection of instructional materials, will support the values and stand that their children are taught at home.''
At the Coalition Against Censorship, Leanne Katz counters, ''It's my view that it's a violation of the First Amendment and of the principles of education to remove a book from a student because of disapproval of the ideas in that book. Censorship only protects ignorance, not innocence.''
The suit now in the Supreme Court will not answer all of the questions surrounding a school board's power over library shelves. At issue in the Island Trees case is whether students even have a right to bring such a suit. However, it provides a preview of what could be a long line of suits over school libraries.
Also this term the Supreme Court will act on at least three other school issues:
* Antibusing measures passed by voters in California and Washington State face a test. The high court will decide whether such the bans on busing for desegregation are constitutional. However, the cases are not likely to have much national impact, since neither state restricts federal courts, which have issued the vast majority of school busing orders.
* Children of illegal aliens in Tyler, Texas, are seeking to overturn a Texas law that would exclude them from public schools. The statute denies state education funds for children of illegal aliens. So far the courts have blocked enforcement of the statute, which would affect thousands of Mexicans living in the Southwest. The Supreme Court will consider whether the law violates the equal protection rights of the youngsters.
* Schools must provide special aid for children with special needs, but does that include paying $20,000 for a sign-language interpreter for a first grader who is deaf? The pupil, Amy Rowley, attends school in Westchester County, N.Y., where she is in the top half of her class. Her parents say she would perform even better with a sign interpreter.