A three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit has today overturned an injunction blocking the Miami-Dade School Board from removing a children's book ¡Vamos a Cuba! from elementary and middle school libraries. The case below was ACLU of Fla, Inc. v. Miami-Dade County Sch. Bd., 439 F. Supp. 2d 1242 (S.D. Fla. 2006).
The district court found, for the purposes of the preliminary injunction, that “the majority of the Miami-Dade County School Board members intended by their removal of the books to deny schoolchildren access to ideas or points-of-view with which the school officials disagreed, and that this intent was the decisive factor in their removal decision.” The court also found “that the School Board’s claim of ‘inaccuracies’ is a guise and pretext for ‘political orthodoxy.’” (52)
The Court of Appeals disagreed. To get to that result required deciding a fairly technical point of law in a highly disputable way, followed by a judgment call on the merits that is perhaps less disputable, but still open to real doubt.
For those who came in late, ¡Vamos a Cuba! (the Spanish version of “A Visit To Cuba”) is a pretty lousy cut and paste of a children's book, aimed at beginning readers ages 4-8. It's one in a series of formulaic picture books about life in foreign countries, and not, apparently, one of the best in this rather unexciting series. (Other countries in this lets-market-to-libraries series include Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Cambodia, Egypt, the United Kingdom (plus separate books on England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales), Canada, Vietnam, Australia, China, Japan, Mexico, Italy, Israel, Ireland, India, Greece, Germany, and France.)
A parent complained about the book presenting a sanitized vision of life in Cuba — it doesn't mention any hardships, communism, or even poverty, as do some other books about Cambodia or Vietnam. The school system conducted a four-level review, each of which recommended keeping the book despite some pretty dumb factual errors such as misidentifying some '60s cave paintings as one of Cuba's 1000-year-old ones.
The Superintendent agreed the book shouldn't be pulled, but proposed putting a sticker in the book that would say
ATTENTION STUDENTS AND PARENTS
This book was purchased by your school as part of a series of books on many foreign countries. Some of the information provided in this book about life in Cuba under that nation’s communist dictatorship is incorrect or incomplete enough to be inaccurate. For an accurate depiction of life in Cuba, Miami-Dade County Public Schools recommends the following books that can be found in this school’s library.
Cuba for Kids by Ismael Roque-Velasco
The final level of review was the (elected, political) School Board itself. It voted 6-3 to take the series off the shelf. Anyone who lived through that moment here knows that emotions ran high, that some Board members said they felt personally at risk to their safety if they voted “wrong” and that the decision was conducted in charged, political atmosphere. That doesn't mean I can read the Board members' minds — but from contemporary accounts, the circumstantial evidence seemed fairly strong.
The District Court, aware of all this, enjoined the removal on the grounds that the Board's motives were not book quality, but politics, which would be a First Amendment violation. The District Court said:
While the debate was couched in terms of “inaccuracies” contained in the Cuba Books, the real issue was that the Cuba Books were content-neutral and scrupulously apolitical, and did not reflect, as viewed by the majority of the School Board members, the true evil of Castro's government and the oppression of the Cuban people. Thus, the majority was significantly motivated to remove the books because of their disagreement with the content-neutral views expressed in the Cuba Books, essentially the view that “People in Cuba eat, play and go to school like you.”
439 F. Supp. 2d at 1283.
The Eleventh Circuit, 2-1, reversed.
The critical legal move in the decision relates to the standard of review for factual determinations concerning motive.
Ordinarily, motive is a question of fact, found by the trier of fact, and reviewed deferentially under a “clear error” standard by the Court of Appeals — in contrast to legal issues which that court decides de novo. But in this case, the majority argued that it should review the motive question de novo because it decides the case,
“Unlike the question of motive in retaliation cases, motive in this case is not just a preliminary issue. Instead, discerning the nature of the Board’s motive will, under the standard we are assuming applies, determine the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claim.
(Slip. Op, Page 56)
The Court of Appeal majority argued that to defer would be to in effect surrender its appellate power. The substantive legal test on school library book removals (tracing back to Board Of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982)) is whether School Board “disliked the ideas contained in it and by removal of the book sought to prescribe political orthodoxy or other matters of opinion.” Thus, the Eleventh Circuit is right to say that the motive question more or less decides this case. What's less clear is whether it follows that it gets to reopen the issue. It's an issue that just might make the decision get the Supreme Court's attention were a cert petition to be filed.
Having decided that the standard was de novo review of the motive question, the court then re-examined the (in)accuracy question de novo, and decided that the were enough factual inaccuracies to justify what the School Board did, and that these inaccuracies were in fact the Board's actual motive. In my opinion, the first point is more plausible than the second.
There's a more subtle, but equally important, issue lurking in this decision, although one that is not as cleanly presented as it might be and thus somewhat less likely to get the Supreme Court's attention. For those who see the Board's decision as justified — or justifiable — by the inaccuracies in the book, the critical inaccuracies are not the various small dumb mistakes in this cut and paste of a book. The Court of Appeals majority said,
Whatever else it prohibits, the First Amendment does not forbid a school board from removing a book because it contains factual inaccuracies, whether they be of commission or omission. There is no constitutional right to have books containing misstatements of objective facts shelved in a school library. (51)
Is that quite so obvious? The critical sins in this book are — and the Board was forthright about this — sins of omission. By focusing only on things about life in Cuba that would be familiar to Americans — people eat and go to school — the book left out that which is abnormal in Cuba — rationing, communism, tourist/native economic apartheid and so on.
Can a School Board constitutionally remove a book from library shelves because it thinks it's too one-sided? Presumably not if the one-sidedness is presented as opinion. But what if the claim is that the presentation of the facts is slanted by omission? That, I think is both a hard question and (until now) an open one.
The majority's argument is well summed up in one of its examples,
And what about a book about life in the antebellum South that asserted: “People in the old South ate, worked, and went to school like you do,” neglecting to mention anything about slavery and the millions of human beings who lived and died in bondage? [Board Br. 11] Would we describe that book as “apolitical”? Would a school board be forbidden from removing the book from its library shelves because the book’s distortions were through omissions, or because it went against “politically orthodox views”? Would removal of the book be prohibited on the ground that it was motivated by the book’s failure to contain enough “negative political information” about the pre-Civil War South?
I really do think this is a close question once the book is on the shelf. Pulling it for leaving out important facts undoubtedly available in other books is perilously close to the evil identified by the 4-Justice Supreme Court plurality in Pico: “local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to 'prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'” Pico, 457 U.S. at 872.
The world is not coming to an end because the School Board is able to get rid of a pretty crummy book. It would be nice, however, not to set a precedent that encourages our School Board — far from a paragon of civic virtue — to get into the book reviewing business.
[Note: this is a very long decision — 177 pages! — and I may amend the preliminary thoughts above once I've had a chance to read it more carefully.]