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Supreme Court: Miami school can ban book on Cuba

The Supreme Court Monday declined to hear a challenge to a Miami school board decision that removed a book about Cuba from public schools. The book was seen as presenting too cheery a view of life in Cuba.

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Critics of the book said it presented a distorted view of Cuba by suggesting the lives of children there are no different from those in the US. A more accurate portrayal would include the hardships of life in Cuba, they said.

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Those against a ban of "Vamos a Cuba" stressed that other books could be included on library shelves to offer a more rounded view of Cuba. They said removing and banning the book was censorship.

The school district responded to the controversy by assembling two boards to review the complaint. The boards voted 7 to 1 and then 15 to 1 to keep the books in school libraries.

The Miami-Dade School Board then took up the issue and voted 6 to 1 to replace the book. The board majority said the book was inaccurate and contained several omissions about life in Cuba under Fidel Castro.

Correcting inaccuracy or censoring books?

In its ruling, the appeals court embraced this view. Supposing the book series included one on North Korea, wrote Judge Ed Carnes in his decision. "Suppose the book stated: 'People in North Korea eat, work, and go to school like you do.' We probably could all agree that statement is factually inaccurate."

"Would a school board be prohibited from removing the book on the ground that doing so would constitute viewpoint discrimination?," Judge Carnes asked. "Or because it promotes political orthodoxy to remove a book that makes a despised regime look better than the truth would? Would a school board's decision to remove that book from the shelves of its libraries amount to book banning? Would removing it be unconstitutional?"

The dissenting judge on the appeals panel answered those questions with a yes. The correct response, he said, was to make more books on Cuba available to students, not fewer.

Carnes argued that "Vamos a Cuba" is not content-neutral. Statements in a nonfiction book that "whitewash the problems of a country and make the life of its people appear to be better than it is are not content neutral any more than overt propaganda would be," he wrote.

Once it is established that the book presents a false picture, Carnes said, the argument that the school board acted as ideological censors "collapses on itself."

The ACLU disagrees. "The Miami-Dade School Board violated the right of school children to have access to the marketplace of ideas in their school libraries," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. "These books were removed under the guise of 'inaccuracies,' but the real reason they were removed was because the books ran afoul of the political orthodoxy of a majority of the school board members."

He added, "If that is to become the new standard for censoring books from public library shelves, the ACLU may be immersed in censorship battles for years to come."


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