Let me just state that whist I am light years away from being a civil libertarian, I have a visceral disquietude about censorship and think, on the main, that open refutation of erring notions is superior to their suppression.
My copy of The Communist Manifesto and several Watchtower Publications tracts has probably made me a better critic of Marxism and creationism than I would elsewhile have been. That doesn't mean that I'm opposed to a policy of censorship. It's too easy for the civil libertarian to say we shouldn't censor and that books, videos, movies, websites, and TV have no impact upon people's behavior unmindful of the contradictions: if art and media have no psychosocial significance, than why concern oneself with their censoring? First Amendment purists ignore generations of scientific research and perceptual psychology the way creationists ignore paleontology and genetics.
All of this, this diversion, is to be expected from anyone who grew up in Levittown in the 1970's because the Island Trees School District became Ground Zero for the censorship debate in wake of the Pico vs. Island Trees case that gained national attention when it arrived before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The facts of the case are relatively straight-forward. In 1976 an activist group called Parents of New York United inspired Island Trees' board of education to remove books from the library that dealt with various controversial subjects - race, war, poverty, sex, addiction - in frank and sometimes graphic terms. High school senior Steven Pico and a group of students sued the Board and the case went before the Supreme Court wherein the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff; upholding the First Amendment rights of high school students. (It's a ruling that I've always found odd because if the First Amendment applies to citizens under the age of 18, than why doesn't the Second uphold the right to bring a firearm to school?).
In the hands of the popular media and its frequent proclivity for over-simplistic dichotomy, Pico vs. Island Trees became a case of progressive-minded plaintiffs verses the wannabe Leave it to Beaver bourgeois of Levittown; sophisticates pitted against suburban Archie Bunkers. While it was true, however, that some of those books were banned on rather specious grounds - tantamount to removing the Bible from Sunday school because of its references to adultery - others were hardly suitable for high school students. Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, for example, wherein the author, a convicted felon, suggests that black men sexually assault white women as a form of social protest, would be suitable if the objective were to instill in the students the Black Panther's hostility towards white people or the Klan's contention that black men are potential sexual predators. It has no other significance beyond being on a list of banned books and little culturally, intellectually, or spiritually redeeming worth. Indeed, even the author himself, in later years, went on to renounce his former sexist and racist views.
Steven Bergsman, in his recent Growing Up Levittown, suggested that Island Trees school board "couched their actions by calling the books 'anti-American' and 'anti-Christian' and perhaps to get the sympathy of the relatively few Jewish families, mostly Democrats, who lived in Levittown, they also used the phrase 'anti-Semitic.'" I think there's truth to this. But it also seems more like Steven Pico et. al. and the ACLU used one another as props: one to enjoy the proverbial "15 minutes of fame" and the other to polish its public image as the vanguard of freedom against reactionary bumpkins and local yokels; to relive the glory days of the Scopes Monkey Trial which, in fact, had far less to do with evolution vs creationism and more to do with advancing the careers and public stature of Clarance Darrow, H.L. Menckin, and the ACLU.
William Jennings Bryan may have been "on the wrong side of history" and Steven Pico may have been "on the right side of history," but I suspect that the former's motivations were a little more pristine. Pico could, after all, have obtained all the removed books in the Levittown Public Library or local bookstore. And why the rush to lawyer-up? In either case, Levittown and the Island Trees School District received a black eye neither deserved and two years later, the ACLU hoisted itself by its own petard in the Skokie case.
By the time the U.S. Department of Education published its "A Nation at Risk" report in 1983, Pico vs. Island Trees was forgotten only to be mentioned by Michael J. Fox in an episode of Family Ties and in Anne Estock's Christmas in August: The Story of a Prostitute. People were more concerned about what their children weren't learning in school than by what they were being taught; less concerned about their school district becoming Fahrenheit 451 than a Huxley's Brave New World where nobody would even be interested in reading a book in the first place.
Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding community? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org