ACLU of Florida Sues to Stop Book Censorship by Miami-Dade County School Board

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
June 21, 2006 12:00 am

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MIAMI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Greater Miami Chapter, today filed a lawsuit against the Miami-Dade County School Board challenging the removal and banning of a series of children’s books, including the hotly debated Vamos a Cuba (A Visit to Cuba), from the public school’s library system.

“The Miami-Dade School Board’s decision to defy U.S. law prohibiting censorship and ignore the recommendation of their own superintendent and two committees is a slap in the face to our tradition of free speech and the school board’s own standards of due process,” said JoNel Newman, ACLU of Florida cooperating attorney. “The purpose of having a procedure to evaluate a book and provide recommendations is pointless when the school board chooses to ignore the advice of educators and librarians.”

The book under scrutiny, Vamos a Cuba, is part of a series of children’s travel books that includes titles on Puerto Rico, Australia, France, Greece and others. The book first came into the spotlight in April when a local parent complained about the book’s portrayal of life in Cuba. On April 17 the ACLU sent a letter to the school board’s attorney expressing concern about the First Amendment implications of removing books from the school libraries.

The last major case involving book censorship by a public school system was a New York case in 1982, Board of Education v. Pico. That case, also handled by the ACLU, has stood mostly unchallenged and has generally prevented school and library book censorship by public schools. The ACLU said it is confident that free speech will yet again be upheld by the court.

“The school is responsible for providing as much information with different viewpoints as possible – it is the responsibility of the teachers and parents to put that information into context and help our children learn the whole truth about any given situation,” said Virginia Rosen, President of the Greater Miami Chapter of the ACLU of Florida. “What’s more alarming is that the school board decided to ban the entire series of books, without ever having reviewed them.”

According to the school district’s policy, the book was scrutinized by a school advisory committee comprised of educators, administrators, community members and a child psychologist. The committee ultimately found (by a vote of 7 – 1) that the book was fit for its target audience of five- to seven-year-old children and recommended that it not be removed.

The ACLU sent a second letter to the school board warning the school district of the First Amendment and censorship issues at stake before the book was subsequently debated by an appeals committee. That committee also voted (by a vote of 15 – 1) to keep the book on the library shelves. Superintendent Rudy Crew also recommended that the book remain in the library system.

The school board, however, ignored those recommendations and threw the First Amendment principles governing the removal of library books aside when they voted to remove Vamos a Cuba as well as the entire series. The 24 other books in the collection were not reviewed by the school board or the committees.

“I understand that the images and words contained in Vamos a Cuba are hurtful to many who lost their homeland. But the lawful response – as the U.S. Supreme Court has said time and time again – is to add more information with different viewpoints, not enforce censorship,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “Censorship is a cure worse than the disease.”

The case, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Inc., Greater Miami Chapter, et. al. v. Miami-Dade County School Board, was filed in the United States District Court, Southern District of Florida today. JoNel Newman, Assistant Professor at the University of Miami’s School of Law; Randall Marshall, ACLU Legal Director, and Rosalind Matos, ACLU South Florida Staff Counsel, are attorneys in the case. Plaintiffs include several families of Miami-Dade students who are ACLU members as well as the Miami-Dade County Student Government Association.

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