What about a book for the little kids?

The books that end up in contested court cases are usually pretty edgy.  You will usually find a lot of vulgar language and sexuality. Or, as in Voodoo and Hoodoo, you will find descriptions of unorthodox practices that scare the bejesus out of some parents.  But today’s case is about a simple 32-page reader for children aged 4-8. It was titled A Visit to Cuba! and was one of a series of books with similar titles and identical formats that introduced small children to the countries of the world.  There was no vulgarity.  No sex.  No discussion of religion.  Just a simple introduction to the geography, climate, language, and customs of countries around the world.  Simple declarative sentences and big colorful pictures. Just right for little children learning to read.  What could be wrong?

Facts could be wrong, particularly if those facts were the subject of political controversy. As you read about this case, think about the current climate of fact-based controversies with political undercurrents.   

Today’s case is ACLU v. Miami-Dade County School Board.  It’s about a book that probably would not have stirred up as much controversy in other parts of the country. But when Mr. Amador, one of Fidel Castro’s former political prisoners, read the book his little girl brought home from the school library he was incensed.  He asked the school to take the book out of the library.

At the board meeting where the issue was decided one of the board members described the political pressure that was in play in South Florida. He said that if some of his fellow board members did not vote to remove the book “they can’t walk out of here. If they don’t vote for [removal of the book] they can’t go home, they might find a bomb under their automobiles, and I feel that’s a shame to be put upon a school system that we are trying to train our children to have equality and justice.”

The board did vote to remove the book (6-3), and the ACLU took up the cause.

The 11th Circuit’s opinion along with the dissent of one judge runs 62 pages.  Here at the Daily Dawg we’re going to cut to the chase.  The court upheld the board’s decision to remove the book. The basis this time was not vulgarity or sex or unusual religious practices. Nor was it politics, although that was the undercurrent of the case. It was accuracy.  The board members determined that the book contained numerous inaccuracies, both in what it said and in what it did not say.  For example, the simple statement that “People in Cuba eat, work, and go to school like you do.”  The board members faulted that statement for what it left out and for what it implied—that life in Cuba was just like life in Florida.  Here’s the Key Quote:

The record shows that the Board did not simply dislike the ideas in the Vamos a Cuba book. Instead, everyone, including both sides’ experts, agreed that the book contained factual inaccuracies. Factual accuracy in a non-fiction book is not a ‘matter of opinion.’  Under the Pico standard we are applying, the Board did not act based on an unconstitutional motive.

The court’s opinion offers some examples of how the omission of certain important facts can render a simple statement “inaccurate.”  There is much discussion in the opinion of the sentence in the Cuba book that says that “People in Cuba eat, work, and go to school like you do.”  The court offered some provocative hypotheticals.  How about Germany in the 1930s:

Suppose the book, in addition to describing some of the geography of Germany said “People in the Third Reich ate, worked, and went to school like you do,” being careful not to mention any of the millions of people who were sent off to concentration camps.

Or how about Mississippi in 1850? What if a book about that time and place said:

“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.

So we add one more factor that would be a proper basis for a school board’s decision to remove a book from the library: inaccuracy in a non-fiction book.  The case was decided by the 11th Circuit on February 5, 2009, and is cited at 557 F.3d 1177. 


Got a question or comment for the Dawg?  Let me hear from you at jwalsh@wabsa.com

Tomorrow:  Let’s wrap this up….