Participant in famous book-banning case looks back

Thursday, September 30, 2010

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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

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
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

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

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

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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