For Immediate Release
February 12, 2009
NEW YORK, NY – The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), and the Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) today joined in criticizing a decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the Miami-Dade County School Board’s banning of the children’s picture book Vamos a Cuba. In a 2-1 decision last week, the appeals court declared that the school board had the right to ban the book, which is intended for four-to-eight year-olds, because it omitted such facts as “[t]he people of Cuba survive without civil liberties,” “it [is] a crime to exercise private initiative or to have private practice of a profession,” “[p]ractically everyone must work for the government,” and “[r]efusal to do agricultural work may result in expulsion from school.” ABFFE, NCAC and FTRF had filed an amicus brief urging the appeals court to uphold the federal district court decision that ordered the books back into the Miami school libraries.
ABFFE President Chris Finan said that the appeals court decision sets a dangerous precedent. “The 11th circuit has given the green light to school authorities to purge their libraries of books that they don’t like by claiming that they are not factual,” he said.
Joan Bertin, executive director of NCAC said, “the decision departs from settled First Amendment principles by allowing political views to control educational decisions. Specifically, the board rejected the book, calling it “inaccurate,” because it failed to criticize the Cuban government.” The court went so far as to find as matter of fact “that the people of Cuba live in a state of subjugation to a totalitarian communist regime with all that involves.”
The court accepted as “fact” the testimony of anti-Castro board members, much of it drawn from personal experiences, because, according to the court, “factual inaccuracy in a non-fiction book is not a ‘matter of opinion.’” Judith F. Krug, executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, challenged this view. “There can be, and usually is, more than one interpretation of historical events, and this is undeniably true of differing accounts of the realities of life in Cuba. The board’s effort to suppress an interpretation at odds with its own is classic censorship.”
The Miami case began in 2006 when a former Cuban political prisoner complained that Vamos a Cuba, a 32-page picture book that contains a mere 603 words, is “untruthful” because it “portray[ed] a life in Cuba that does not exist.” Two panels of educators reviewed the book and upheld its use in school libraries by a combined vote of 22-2. The superintendent of schools also urged the school board to retain the book. But the school board banned it by a 6-3 vote. Several board members acknowledged that they had voted to remove the book because by failing to include detailed facts about Cuba’s dictatorship it was “offensive” to the Cuban American community.
ACLU of Florida challenged the ban, and a federal district court judge in Miami declared it unconstitutional because the board’s decision was driven by hostility to the views expressed in the book, particularly the failure to condemn the Cuban government and the conditions of life in the country. This decision was reversed by the appeals court. (The appeals court decision is online, http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200614633.pdf. The text of the book is reproduced in an appendix of the dissenting opinion.)
The ACLU of Florida has indicated that it will appeal the decision. It can either request all of the judges on the appeals court to review the decision or seek U.S. Supreme Court review.
The amicus brief filed by ABFFE, NCAC and FTRF was joined by the Association of Booksellers for Children, Reforma, and Peacefire.org. The brief is available online at http://ncac.org/images/ncacimages/vamosacuba_11thcircuit_amicusbrief.pdf