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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

School board members in Miami have won their battle to remove a children's book from the shelves of Miami-Dade school libraries because they said the book presented an inaccurate picture of life in Cuba.

On Monday, the US Supreme Court declined to take up the case of "Vamos a Cuba" – the little book that sparked a big controversy over alleged censorship in Miami.

The action lets stand a 2-1 ruling by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals that the school board's decision to remove the book was not censorship in violation of the First Amendment. Instead, the Atlanta-based appeals court said the school board was seeking to remove the book because it contained substantial factual inaccuracies.

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida had appealed to the high court to overturn the 11th Circuit decision.

"It is a sad day for free speech in our great nation," said JoNel Newman, a lawyer with the ACLU of Florida. "This is a dangerous precedent, and a huge leap backwards in the battle against censorship. Aftershocks may be felt in public school libraries across the country."

A federal judge had earlier found that the school board had engaged in unconstitutional censorship. "School board members intended by their removal of the books to deny school children access to ideas or points-of-view with which the school officials disagreed," US District Judge Alan Gold said.

The judge issued an injunction blocking removal of the book. The appeals court ordered the injunction to be lifted, and it is this order that was upheld by the Supreme Court's action.

Parents complained

The underlying controversy arose in 2006, when the parent of a student at a Miami elementary school complained about the book. "As a former political prisoner in Cuba, I find the material to be untruthful" in a way that "aims to create an illusion and distort reality," wrote the student's father, Juan Amador.

"Vamos a Cuba" and its English-language version "A Visit to Cuba" are part of a series of 24 books seeking to introduce young readers, aged four to eight, to other countries.

Among the offending passages was this one: "People in Cuba eat, work, and go to school like you do."

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.

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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