Friday, June 16, 2006

Wonkitorial: Miami Book Banning

In a 6-3 vote, the Miami, Florida school board overruled its own superintendent and banned a series of books about other nations from campus libraries because the text about Cuba wasn't harsh enough in its portrayal of life under the Castro regime:
A controversial children's book about Cuba — and similar books from the same series about other countries — will be removed from all Miami-Dade school libraries after a school board vote that split Hispanic and non-Hispanic members in an incendiary political atmosphere.

Only the Cuba book, Vamos a Cuba, and its English-language counterpart, A Visit to Cuba, were reviewed through the district's lengthy appeals process. Some board members who voted for the ban admitted they had never seen other books in the series, which features 24 nations including Greece, Mexico and Vietnam — none of which had been formally objected to.

"Basically it paints life in those 24 countries with the same brush, with the same words," said board chairman Agustin Barrera, who said he read most of the books.

As part of the 6-3 vote, the board overruled two review committees and Superintendent Rudy Crew, all of whom had decided to keep the book. Even longtime district officials could not remember any previous banning of a book by the school board. And the American Civil Liberties Union said it was prepared to file a lawsuit challenging the decision, which the school board's own attorney said would be "costly."

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said the district should work to collect more material with different viewpoints, not remove the controversial books.

District officials were unsure how many copies of other books in the series there were, but schools hold 49 copies of the Cuba book.

It became the target of controversy earlier this year when the father of a Marjory Stoneman Douglas Elementary student complained about the book's rosy portrayal of life in Fidel Castro's Cuba.

"The Cuban people have been paying a dear price for 47 years for the reality to be known," said Juan Amador Rodriguez, a former political prisoner in Cuba who filed the original complaint, which was denied, and subsequent appeals. But in his final appeal to the school board, the majority decided its inaccuracies and omissions made it inappropriate for its intended kindergarten-to-second-grade audience.

"A book that misleads, confounds or confuses has no part in the education of our students, most especially elementary students who are most impressionable and vulnerable," said board member Perla Tabares Hantman.

Opponents of the ban said it was tantamount to censorship of politically unsavory speech — something specifically barred by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Next week we will have another complaint about another book from another group," said board member Evelyn Greer. "If this standard is applied, we will go through every book in the system."

Legal experts said the board's action appeared to be unconstitutional. A 1982 Supreme Court case ruled that school boards have wide discretion to determine which books go on shelves, but "that discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner."
Some might say that the board's overruling of the committees and superintendent demonstrates that the system of oversight by elected (and therefore directly accountable to the citizenry) school boards does indeed work.

That argument follows this line of reasoning: After a complaint by a concerned parent, board members examined the text and decided that it didn't satisfy community standards. The board then directed its removal forthwith from those school libraries under the board's jurisdiction.

Be that as it may, we're troubled by the fact that the board decided to ban the whole series from its school libraries without bothering to read the excluded books.

By not taking the time to actually read the books before excluding them, the board comes across as lazy (at best) or as closed-minded rubes (at worst).

Hopefully, the board will reconsider its decision and evaluate each book according to its own merits.

Related: Miami Gradebook has been all over this controversy.
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