Participant in famous book-banning case looks back

More than 30 years ago, 15-year-old Russell Rieger and some of his fellow students in Island Trees, N.Y., didn’t like the idea of school officials’ removing books by Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and other classic authors from library shelves. They did something about it, filing a lawsuit that eventually reached the U.S Supreme Court.

In 1982, the Court ruled in Board of Education v. Pico that public school officials could not remove books from school library shelves simply because they didn’t like the ideas expressed in the books. Five students — high school students Steven Pico, Jacqueline Gold, Glenn Yarris and Rieger, and junior high school student Paul Sochinski — filed the lawsuit.

“The first time I learned about the book censorship was at a school assembly when my English teacher Mrs. Pepper whispered in my ear, ‘Did you know that books are being removed from the library?’” Rieger recalled in a phone interview this week, which is Banned Books Week. “I couldn’t believe that they were taking away classics from the library. I was also told that they removed the books at night when no one was around.”

In September 1975, several board members of the Island Trees Union Free School District attended a conference sponsored by Parents of New York United. At the conference, the school board members obtained materials listing objectionable books found in many school libraries. Taking this material to heart, in early 1976 the board removed several books from Island Trees High School and Island Trees Memorial Junior High School, including:

  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
  • The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris Down These Mean Streets by Piri
  • Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes
  • Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
  • Laughing Boy by Oliver LaFarge
  • Black Boy by Richard Wright
  • A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich by Alice Childress
  • Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver.

Rieger had read several of the books on the banned list, including Slaughterhouse-Five. “I loved Kurt Vonnegut and his work,” Rieger said. “I think the board members weren’t bad people but it was a very conservative community and there was some prejudice there.” He said he doubted that many of the board members read the books in their entirety; they just focused on specific passages, he said.

Rieger, who was from a Jewish family, knew what it was like to be in a minority. “I was more sensitive to prejudice and injustice,” he says. “I also was pretty politically active and aware for a kid. My sister, who was eight years older than me, was a hippie.”

School wins first round

With assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, the students filed suit in January 1977 in a New York state court. The case was removed to federal court in part because of the constitutional issues involved. In 1979, a federal district court ruled in favor of the school district and dismissed the lawsuit. The district court reasoned that courts generally should not intervene in the operations of the schools and that although removing books may “reflect a misguided educational philosophy, it does not constitute a sharp and direct infringement of any First Amendment rights.”

The next year, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, finding that the students should have been given the opportunity to prove that the school board’s justifications for removing the books were “simply pretexts for the suppression of free speech.”

After the school board failed to obtain full-panel review before the 2nd Circuit, it appealed to the Supreme Court. In 1982, the high court took the case and in a divided opinion said school officials are limited on when they can remove books from library shelves. In his plurality opinion, Justice William Brennan wrote: “We hold that local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of public opinion.’”

The Court noted the testimony of one school board member who objected to Alice Childress’ work about a teenage drug addict, Benji Thomas, A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich. One of the characters in the book, teacher Nigeria Green, talks about President George Washington as a slaveowner. The board member considered such language “anti-American.”

The case was sent back down to the lower courts and within a year the books were returned to the library shelves — after a 4-3 school board vote in January 1983.

Rieger said he followed the case from afar with interest but did not go to the Supreme Court to hear oral arguments. “Steven Pico followed the case more closely than the rest of us,” Rieger said. Rieger said he did not know Pico’s whereabouts.

Personal reflections

Rieger, who lives on Long Island, said the case definitely had an impact on him personally. “It helped shape who I am as a person,” he says. “It confirmed and solidified certain beliefs that I had and it also showed me that there was a process in which you could fight back against injustice and win. In this country, you don’t have to take no for an answer.”

Rieger thought about becoming a lawyer, partly as a result of this case. Instead, he forged a successful career in the record business. “I ran a couple record labels and represented artists such as Cyndi Lauper and the Replacements. I served as general manager of Maverick Recording Company, which was co-owned by Madonna.” He oversaw numerous platinum and gold records, and was nominated for a Grammy for his work on “The Matrix” soundtrack.

In addition to his corporate successes, Rieger “takes great pride” in his participation in the famous book-censorship case.

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