11th Circuit: Miami school board can pull Cuba book from libraries

Friday, February 6, 2009

ATLANTA — Miami school officials can remove from library shelves a book about Cuba that depicts smiling children in communist uniforms but avoids mention of problems in the country, a divided federal appeals panel ruled yesterday.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the Miami-Dade County School District wouldn't be infringing on freedom of speech by removing 49 copies of Vamos a Cuba and its English-language version, A Visit to Cuba, from its libraries. The board has argued that the books, for children ages 5 to 8, present an inaccurate view of life in Cuba.

The board voted to remove the book in 2006 after a parent who was a former political prisoner in Cuba complained. A federal judge in Miami later ruled that the board should add books of different perspectives instead of removing offending titles.

However, the 11th Circuit majority sided with school board officials yesterday in ACLU of Florida v. Miami-Dade County School Board.

“There is a difference between not including graphic detail about adult subjects on the one hand and falsely representing that everything is hunky dory on the other,” Judge Ed Carnes wrote for the majority.

Judge Charles R. Wilson wrote in dissent that it appeared the book was removed for political rather than educational reasons.

“For decades, residents of Communist Cuba have emigrated to the United States to escape the repressive totalitarian regime of its dictator, to seek freedom, and to enjoy the privileges of United States citizenship,” Wilson wrote. “Prominent among those privileges is the freedom of speech, protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The banning of children’s books from a public school library under circumstances such as these offends the First Amendment.”

Carnes took issue with the lower court’s and Wilson’s use of the term “book banning.” “The dissenting opinion not only adopts that pejorative label from its very first sentence, but also builds its entire attack on the Board’s action on the premise that this case involves book banning,” Carnes wrote. “That is a faulty foundation. The Board did not ban any book. The Board removed from its own school libraries a book that the Board had purchased for those libraries with Board funds. It did not prohibit anyone else from owning, possessing, or reading the book.”

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, promised “further legal action to prevent the shelves of Miami-Dade school libraries from being scrubbed of books that some people find to have an objectionable view point.”

Simon added, “However much they try to evade the facts and bend the law into a pretzel, censorship is censorship is censorship.”

Schools Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho said in a statement he was glad the issue was resolved.

The 2001 book by Alta Schreier contains images of smiling children wearing uniforms of Cuba's communist youth group and celebrating the country's 1959 revolution. In discussing daily life, the book says children work, study and play the same way children in other countries do.

Juan Amador, whose complaint prompted the board to pursue the book's removal, was outraged that the book made no mention of lack of civil liberties, political indoctrination of school children, food rationing or child labor. He said in his complaint to the school board that the book “portrays a life in Cuba that does not exist.”

ACLU attorney JoNel Newman had argued at a 2007 hearing that political discussions need not be required for books for elementary students. She questioned whether a book about the Great Wall of China must mention Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong.

Tags: , , ,