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What May a School Board Do When It Concludes an Elementary School Library Book Omits Important Information?

A U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit panel just handed down a monster 177-page decision on the subject (with a two-judge majority and a one-judge dissent). I think the majority got it mostly right, in upholding the school board's decision about the book; and I wanted to blog a few posts about various aspects of the problem.

1. The concrete details (albeit necessarily oversimplified): The Miami-Dade school district had a bunch of copies of A Visit to Cuba and its Spanish version Vamos a Cuba. The book (the text of which is included at pp. 175-77 of the decision) is a short and bland item, with no mention at all that Cuba is an oppressive dictatorship. Many people objected to the book on the grounds that this omission (plus some other items) made the book inaccurate; the school board eventually removed the book. The question is whether this removal violates the First Amendment.

The question that the panel discussed was "whether the School Board was motivated to remove Vamos a Cuba because of inaccuracies [in the book]" as opposed to "simply because [the Board members] dislike the ideas contained in [the] book[]." (As I'll mention later, that might not be the right constitutional standard, but the majority used the standard because it was in its view the most plaintiff-friendly plausible standard, and yet the plaintiffs would lose even under it.) Some of the discussion was about some relatively minor inaccuracies -- for instance, whether a particular illustration properly depicts "paintings made by people who lived in Cuba about 1,000 years ago" (it doesn't) -- but it's pretty clear that the removal decision wasn't based on those inaccuracies.

Much of the discussion was about the supposed inaccuracy of the statement that "People in Cuba eat, work, and go to school like you do." The majority repeatedly and sharply condemned this statement as inaccurate, on the grounds that "It is simply not true that people in Cuba "eat, work, and go to school" the same way that American children do." "[I]n Cuba food is rationed by the government." "In Cuba there is "little private work," and "it [is] a crime to exercise private initiative or to have private practice of a profession."" "The book's assertion that people in Cuba go to school "like you do" is false, too. In addition to agricultural field work being a mandatory part of school for Cuban children, the Human Rights Report found that elementary and secondary students receive "obligatory ideological indoctrination.""

But while I sympathize with the majority's position, I think it places too much weight on one interpretation of "like you do." As the dissent points out, "It appears fairly evident that this short sentence is meant to show simply that other children in other cultures also do those things" -- basically, "You eat, work, and go to school, and so do people in Cuba." The very next sentence does say, "Life in Cuba is also unique," and the rest of the book mentions differences in food, schooling, and work. I think it's unlikely that a 4-to-8-year-old reading the book will assume "like you do" means "in exactly the same way as you do."

2. The real problem with the book, it seems to me, is not with any inaccurate statements the book makes. It's with what the book excludes, and thus with the overall picture that it paints (something that the majority and the critics of the book also stress). The book omits what to many people is the most important fact about Cuba -- that it's an oppressive Communist dictatorship. To be sure, this is a fact that isn't trivial to convey to 4-to-8-year-olds, but something of it could be conveyed (other books in the series mention the dire poverty or the legacy of war in other countries).

And it's the absence of this fact that makes the book misleading. As the opinion points out, the book is not that different from an "A Visit to 1930s and 1940s Germany" that omitted any mention of anti-Semitism or tyranny, or "A Visit to the early 1800s American South" that omitted any mention of slavery. Whether or not the book said "People in the Third Reich [or 1830 Alabama] ate and worked like you do," the main problem would be in what the book excluded not with what it included.

3. It seems to me that elementary schools are eminently entitled to exclude books that omit such important information from their libraries. An elementary school library is a place where the school itself provides books that its management (ultimately, the public) thinks are worthwhile for students, and that its management is prepared to endorse. What's more, the young readers are unlikely to read the books with great skepticism, nor are they likely to use each book as a starting point for a broader research program on the subject. (Occasionally, a child will get excited about a topic and want to read much more about it, but not often and certainly not always.)

The school should be entitled to make sure that a book it includes in its library adequately conveys the information in a way that doesn't leave an unduly misleading impression. (I say "unduly" because this will always be a matter of degree; any short book, and for that matter any long one, will always oversimplify things in certain ways that may end up misleading people.) The school need not do so in all instances. But it should be free to do so when it chooses.

The dissent's response -- "The answer to books that do not provide all the information a reader wants is to find another book. If a reader is curious about the Castro regime, he can find another book that enlightens him further." -- doesn't work. The school is aware that many readers won't want to find another book, and of course many readers who read the bland summary of Cuba won't be curious about the Castro regime because they won't even know about the Castro regime, and wouldn't be curious about it even if the book mentioned the word "Castro." The school should be able to make sure that even readers who read this one book won't come away with a picture of Cuba that omits a fact that the school reasonably believes to extremely important.

4. The dissent also responds by arguing that the School Board was really motivated by "a political motive" -- by the school board's disagreement with the "ideas or points-of-view" that the book conveyed -- rather than by "legitimate pedagogical concerns" such as the possibility that the book conveyed "inaccuracies by omission." And of course the critics of the book did loathe Castro's regime, and thought the book conveyed a bad point of view.

But they thought it conveyed a bad point of view precisely because they thought the book was inaccurate by omission. The book effectively conveyed the message that Cuba is much like America, except somewhat poorer and with a somewhat different lifestyle. Whether that's accurate or not depends on your viewpoint about the significance of its being an oppressive dictatorship. The worse the Castro regime is in your view, the more inaccurate the book is by omission.

Most decisions about what facts to include and which to exclude are subjected. Some people might think that including some fact is important; others might disagree. Much of the judgment will turn on their viewpoints about the significance of various evils (or goods), about what the most important take-away message from some event or circumstance might be. One can't entirely be "viewpoint-neutral" in evaluating claims of inaccuracy by omission, especially as to controversial topics, because what is a significant omission and what's not is inherently tied to one's viewpoint about the events.

I think that on balance this is an excellent illustration for why there shouldn't be any constitutional problem even with School Board members' removing a book "simply because they dislike the ideas contained in [the] book[]." But even if one takes the view that removal is permissible only when the book is inaccurate (or vulgar or some such), the School Board's decision that this book is inaccurate strikes me as eminently defensible -- in my view, actually correct, but in any case well within the School Board's rightful discretion to control what messages it conveys through its elementary school libraries.

I'll try to post later today about the constitutional precedent on the subject (the short summary is that the matter is highly unsettled), on whether it should make a constitutional difference that the School Board reversed the decisions of other review committees that would have retained the book (I will argue that it shouldn't), and more broadly on whether there should be any Free Speech Clause constraints on school library decisions in this area (I will argue that there shouldn't be, either as to acquisition of books or as to removal of books).

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. What Do Supreme Court Precedents Tell Us About Removal of Books from School Libraries?
  2. What May a School Board Do When It Concludes an Elementary School Library Book Omits Important Information?
Steve:
Sheesh, imagine the horror if a kid somewhere gets to the age of 8 without knowing that Castro has an oppressive regime. I can't fathom what drives people to make a federal case out of something like this.
2.6.2009 3:40pm
BGates:
I don't have much interaction with four-to-eight year olds beyond filtering out Sarcastro's comments, but I think kids that age would have to assume that "like you do" means "in exactly the same way as you do." Kids that young aren't aware it's even possible to live a life significantly different from their own; how could they be?
2.6.2009 3:43pm
BGates:
Steve, it's generally not the defendants who are responsible for making a federal case out of something, is it?
2.6.2009 3:45pm
Steve:
Where did I say the defendants were responsible for making a federal case out of it?!? Look, if enough people in the community are convinced that this book is turning their first-graders into Communist symps, whatever. This sort of trivial dispute shouldn't get past the school board level, one way or the other.
2.6.2009 3:48pm
KenB (mail):
I take no position on the book at issue. But contrary to my initial inclination, I concede that those who are concerned that children will be "led astray" by what's in school libraries have a point.

As a child, I was taught to believe in the seven day, biblical creation. In about the seventh grade, I picked up a book on early hominids in the junior high school library. I thought it made a lot more sense that what I had been taught to that point (and I still do).

Given that personal experience, it's hard for me to argue that what is in school libraries is not important.
2.6.2009 3:48pm
JoeSixpack (mail):
"The Human Rights Report found that elementary and secondary students receive “obligatory ideological indoctrination.”" So kids in Cuba really DO go to school just like our kids do!
2.6.2009 3:52pm
Virginia:
Whether the School Board made a wise decision or not, I can't see how the First Amendment is implicated. There are a lot of books that aren't in my local library, some of which I'd like to read. If I ask the library to order them, and the library declines to do so, I don't think I'm entitled to an injunction directing them to do so.

Nothing prohibits somebody who wants to read the book from buying it on his own. Maybe he can even buy the library's no-longer-needed copy.
2.6.2009 3:52pm
Anderson (mail):
The precedent seems like it's going to start a world of trouble, as we get into which books fail to state a "complete" (= "properly biased") view of the facts.

I tend to think that the answer to bad speech is good speech, not censorship. And I think that students should be taught that as well. The answer to a book like Vamos a Cuba is to study who published it, who's the author, what does it omit ...

... in other words, "Kids! DON'T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ!"

But this is a policy argument.
2.6.2009 3:53pm
Xanthippas (mail) (www):

And it's the absence of this fact that makes the book misleading. As the opinion points out, the book is not that different from an "A Visit to 1930s and 1940s Germany" that omitted any mention of anti-Semitism or tyranny, or "A Visit to the early 1800s American South" that omitted any mention of slavery. Whether or not the book said "People in the Third Reich [or 1830 Alabama] ate and worked like you do," the main problem would be in what the book excluded not with what it included.


That all sounds very reasonable, but I think what we need to understand here is that the people who find this book objectionable appear to be the kind who want the book to be overtly politicized; that is, to portray not the "truth" about Cuba, but their ideas about Cuba. That is, that Cuba is a terrible place to live, communism is horrible, and Castro is to blame for all of it. In other words, a small group of people want the book to reflect their preferred political beliefs and if it doesn't, they don't want children to be able to read it. If that is not exactly the type of situation in which you want the First Amendment to apply, I'm not sure what one is.
2.6.2009 3:56pm
A Law Dawg:
There are a lot of books that aren't in my local library, some of which I'd like to read. If I ask the library to order them, and the library declines to do so, I don't think I'm entitled to an injunction directing them to do so.


The distinction is that the school library already had the copy and then removed it. While many will debate whether that distinction makes a difference, it does under Supreme Court jurisprudence.
2.6.2009 4:00pm
Xanthippas (mail) (www):

The answer to a book like Vamos a Cuba is to study who published it, who's the author, what does it omit ...


I would also think that you could buy a more complete book, which will sit pretty much right next to the less complete book on the shelf.
2.6.2009 4:01pm
Suzy (mail):
Does this mean that it would be okay for a School board to remove any book about life in another country that doesn't specifically discuss the form of government in that country? Should books about China explain communist dictatorship, or could they simply talk about cultural traditions and activities that have nothing to do with the govenment? What must be said about Saudi Arabia's government, or Ecuador's, to satisfy this demand for comprehensive accuracy?

Either the school board has broad authority to choose what books it considers valuable, for any reason it likes, or it doesn't. I don't mind giving it that broad authority and telling dissenters they have the power to elect a new school board if they don't like it, but I don't understand why THIS book and THIS case are special in that regard.
2.6.2009 4:02pm
BGates:
Steve, the school board were the defendants. The only way the dispute could "get past the school board level" is if someone else took it to court. Your first comment mocked the idea that the school board was right. I assumed your second sentence had some kind of relationship to the first.
2.6.2009 4:02pm
Xanthippas (mail) (www):

Should books about China explain communist dictatorship, or could they simply talk about cultural traditions and activities that have nothing to do with the govenment?


Well see, the answer to that question depends on whether you have a minority of Chinese living in your community who are utterly opposed to the present regime in China. Or so says the 11th Circuit.
2.6.2009 4:06pm
A Law Dawg:
Does this mean that it would be okay for a School board to remove any book about life in another country that doesn't specifically discuss the form of government in that country?


This misses the point. In Miami-Dade, Castro is Cuba's defining characteristic.
2.6.2009 4:06pm
Steve:
Your first comment mocked the idea that the school board was right. I assumed your second sentence had some kind of relationship to the first.

Yeah, it came after the first sentence. Look, I never mocked the school board, it's their job to make these decisions if enough people in the community are concerned. I just can't understand the mentality of the people who felt compelled to waste the taxpayers' money by taking this to federal court, and if the school board had made the exact opposite decision, I'd feel the same way. Go elect a different school board, or better yet, buy your kid whatever damn book on Cuba you want him to read if it's that important to you.
2.6.2009 4:11pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Public education is said to be a public good, good for us all, even those not in school or who have no kids in school.
If so--and this would be the time to try to claim nobody ever said that--then I, as non-student, or non-student parent, have an interest in the subject, not including if I pay taxes.
Mis, mal, or under educating the kids is notin my interest nor in the country's interest.
So I would submit that I have some standing, if not legal.
There are any number of books whose points misinform by ommission or commission. Check your local libraries for "Confessions of An Economic Hit Man" or "Arming America"
It's one thing to give adults a choice of reading them. It's another to give them to a kid with the implicit assurance that this is gospel. True and complete.
It could be a good idea to have the kids read the whole thing and then have an assembly with speakers from the refugee community telling the kids how their school board hosed them.
Critical thinking, man. Truth to power.
2.6.2009 4:22pm
Ahcuah (mail):
How would this decision deal with, let's say, "Heather has two Mommies"?
2.6.2009 4:25pm
Xanthippas (mail) (www):

It could be a good idea to have the kids read the whole thing and then have an assembly with speakers from the refugee community telling the kids how their school board hosed them.


I really don't mean to be hyperbolic, but that sounds a little like something communists themselves might do; hold an assembly for the whole school to criticize a book that doesn't depict things as they wish.

The antidote to a bad book is a good book.
2.6.2009 4:37pm
Kirk:
I'm with Suzy:
Either the school board has broad authority to choose what books it considers valuable, for any reason it likes, or it doesn't.
... and come down on the does have side of the question. The real outrage here is that such a question could actually make it high enough to waste the time of a Federal Court of Appeals.
2.6.2009 4:38pm
MarkField (mail):
Isn't every book ever written "incomplete"?
2.6.2009 4:42pm
MarkField (mail):
Actually, I'm thinking of going to the LA School Board and demanding that they remove Principia Mathematica from the shelves because it's incomplete.
2.6.2009 4:45pm
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2.6.2009 4:47pm
petb (mail):
I spend half of my life in communist regime and now, after 20 years I have adult children. We often discussed with same-age friends how to pass to our children our experience with communism. We bought some books, from (excellent) 1984 to more contemporary books. We tried to speak with our children about how was daily life then and why it was bad.

We agreed with our friends that this experience is not-transferable. It is not possible to understand the life in totalitarian regime without living in one. Even for us, after these years, the former life seems unreal and absurd.

What I want to say that the decision of Educational Board may be well ment, but is mistaken. The book is not hidding anything the children in this age could understand.
2.6.2009 4:54pm
NTB24601:
Eugene Volokh:

The book omits what to many people is the most important fact about Cuba -- that it's an oppressive Communist dictatorship.

Its not a fact about Cuba, though. Its a value judgment about Cuba's political system. That value judgment may be correct. Never having been to Cuba, I really don't know. Its certainly a value judgment that many Americans share. Nonetheless, I find it very troubling that a school board would exclude a children's book simply because it doesn't endorse their value judgments about a political system.

(Imagine a Cuban school excluding a children's book about the United States because it omits the "important fact" that United States is an "oppressive Capitalist corporatocracy." Wouldn't that be the very sort of ideological indoctrination criticized by the Human Rights report that Professor Volokh mentions above?)
2.6.2009 4:55pm
Calderon:
I assume EV will address this in the later, constitutional precedent post, but it sure seems like the selection of books for an elementary school library is "government speech" that can discriminate even based on viewpoint. Indeed, this seems necessarily so.

No library (especially not an elementary school library) is going to have every book. Thus, the librarian, committee, school board, what have you are necesarily going to make choices about what books to include. Moreover, I assume there's general agreement that an elem. school library can exclude books that are protected by the First Amendment. For example, I think we'd all agree that an elem. school library can exclude non-obscene pornography and graphic depictions of violence, etc. Indeed, I think most people would agree that an elementary school could engage in viewpoint discrimination, such as by excluding pro-Nazi, pro-fascist, pro-USSR, etc. books. If you grant that, what's the difference in excluding a book that's arguably favorable to the Castro regime.

A different way of looking at the situation is what books can the government provide. Our government necessarily adopts a viewpoint when it publishes web pages, speaks, etc. When the SEC describes its work through pamphlets and its webpage, it talks about the necessity of protecting viewpoints and the important function it has, and does not mention opposing viewpoints that it drives up business costs with little benefit and/or is completely ineffective. A pamphlet published for school children is going to sound more like "I'm a Bill," rather than discussing public choice problems, kickbacks, and so forth. Elementary school history books in the US talk about how this is a great country with some problems, instead of a plutocracy run by robber barons who crush the proletariat. I don't most people believe that the government is constitutionally required to subsidize literature with a viewpoint opposed to the government, even when it publishes pro-government literature. If that's true, why would there be a constitutional issue with excluding an arguably pro-Cuban communist government book?

The bottom line is that the First Amendment stops the government from banning books. It does not require that the government subsidize books or disseminate all viewpoints.
2.6.2009 5:06pm
mkl:
I would say that 100% of the books my kindergartner brings home materially fail to fully and accurately report social conditions in the locations they describe. A worrisome majority also contain significant inaccuracies of fact in respect to the social and techonological development of animals.
2.6.2009 5:07pm
Seamus (mail):

If that is not exactly the type of situation in which you want the First Amendment to apply, I'm not sure what one is.



Let me help you out here: I want the First Amendment to apply to situations where:

(1) somebody tries to publish or sell a book like Vamos a Cuba, and the government forbids it;

(2) somebody wants to publish or sell a book like Vamos a Cuba, and the governments says, Sure, just let our board of censors review it and grant you a license to do so;

(3) a student carries Vamos a Cuba to school, and gets suspended for doing so;

(4) a student wears a t-shirt to school that says "Be happy, not gay," and the school (which does not have a content-neutral policy that would ban all t-shirts, or all t-shirts with writing on them) tells him he has to cover it up or be suspended;

(5) a student posts comments critical of a school administrator on his private blog, and gets suspended for doing so .

I hope you can tell the difference between these situations and the one in thie lawsuit.
2.6.2009 5:10pm
Seamus (mail):

Imagine a Cuban school excluding a children's book about the United States because it omits the "important fact" that United States is an "oppressive Capitalist corporatocracy." Wouldn't that be the very sort of ideological indoctrination criticized by the Human Rights report that Professor Volokh mentions above?



I don't think I (or Professor Volokh) would be going to court to get the school's action reversed. Instead, I'd work to get the government changed. Maybe the plaintiffs in this case should try that. I hear that in Miami they have these things called "elections" that people can actually use for that purpose (as opposed to the ones they hold in Cuba).
2.6.2009 5:14pm
Anderson (mail):
There are any number of books whose points misinform by ommission or commission. Check your local libraries for "Confessions of An Economic Hit Man" or "Arming America"
It's one thing to give adults a choice of reading them. It's another to give them to a kid with the implicit assurance that this is gospel.


Richard Aubrey exemplifies my concerns about this decision.

Mark Field: Ha! But good luck walking the jury through the proof!
2.6.2009 5:14pm
alkali (mail):
@EV: The book effectively conveyed the message that Cuba is much like America, except somewhat poorer and with a somewhat different lifestyle. Whether that's accurate or not depends on your viewpoint about the significance of its being an oppressive dictatorship.

I guess I would put that as "Whether that's accurate or not depends on your viewpoint about how much children aged 4-8 should be informed about the existence and practices of oppressive dictatorships."

A reasonable answer to that question may well be something on the order of, "Any child who is sophisticated enough to be aware of the existence of countries as political and geographical units, and wants to learn about foreign countries, should probably be informed at least a little bit about that subject in an age-appropriate way, and this book fails to do that minimal amount." Another reasonable answer might be, "It's appropriate to have a series of books that can introduce very young children to the existence of foreign countries without introducing the subjects of political oppression, violence, disease, and other miseries. That's what junior high is for."

I don't really have a view about the school board's decision to remove the book or the court's decision not to enjoin the school board, but the political process described in the opinion is as ugly as all get out. Death threats? Comparisons to pornography? Yuk.
2.6.2009 5:16pm
Anderson (mail):
(Actually, that sounds like an Onion article: "Kentucky Jury Finds Principia Mathematica Is 'Complete Enough.'")
2.6.2009 5:16pm
Asher (mail):
I think Suzy's China hypothetical is an excellent point; surely, if some kind of good reason is needed to remove a book from shelves (and I don't believe a good reason ought to be needed), the fact that a book is incomplete isn't enough of a good reason. Not every children's book about a country needs to deal with that nation's politics, even if many people happen to find those politics the most important fact about the nation (EV: "the book omits what is to many people the most important fact about Cuba"). Suppose that Canada had just the same constitutional speech law as us (of course they don't, but suppose), and that there was a book in a Canadian library about the U.S. that omitted the fact that we're a democracy and one of the world's first great democracies since Athens, and also omitted the fact that we're the world's richest nation, etc. Now, one or the other of these two facts is surely the most important fact about the U.S., but that doesn't seem like a grounds to suppress the book.
2.6.2009 5:18pm
CDU (mail) (www):
Actually, I'm thinking of going to the LA School Board and demanding that they remove Principia Mathematica from the shelves because it's incomplete.


Mark Field wins the thread!
2.6.2009 5:21pm
Seamus (mail):

Does this mean that it would be okay for a School board to remove any book about life in another country that doesn't specifically discuss the form of government in that country?


Pretty much, yeah. It's their library, after all. If you don't like it, get a new school board. (Or do you think that, if the school board found that an elementary school library contained a kiddies' book called, "David Duke: Statesman and Thinker," that just happened to omit his KKK and Nazi pass, it would be wrong for them to yank it from the shelves? How about if it admitted that past, but praised Duke for it?)
2.6.2009 5:21pm
Seamus (mail):

Suppose that Canada had just the same constitutional speech law as us (of course they don't, but suppose), and that there was a book in a Canadian library about the U.S. that omitted the fact that we're a democracy and one of the world's first great democracies since Athens, and also omitted the fact that we're the world's richest nation, etc. Now, one or the other of these two facts is surely the most important fact about the U.S., but that doesn't seem like a grounds to suppress the book.




No, it isn't, but it shouldn't be the court's job to step in and tell the Canadian school that they had to put those books back on the shelves, either.
2.6.2009 5:24pm
A Law Dawg:
Now, one or the other of these two facts is surely the most important fact about the U.S.


The U.S. made the Star Wars saga. That is by far the most important fact about our great nation!
2.6.2009 5:24pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Actually, I'm thinking of going to the LA School Board and demanding that they remove Principia Mathematica from the shelves because it's incomplete.
You think this is funny. If there were a book in your child's elementary school library about 1940s Germany, and how every German citizen had a job, and the wonderful autobahn system, and a sense of common purpose--and left out those other little details about the period, I suspect that you would be a bit upset, too.
2.6.2009 5:27pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Actually, I'm thinking of going to the LA School Board and demanding that they remove Principia Mathematica from the shelves because it's incomplete.
That's on the shelf in LA elementary schools? I'm impressed! I didn't know that they were teaching Latin in the lower grades.
2.6.2009 5:30pm
Seamus (mail):

That's on the shelf in LA elementary schools? I'm impressed! I didn't know that they were teaching Latin in the lower grades.



Uh, Whitehead and Russell wrote in English, not Latin.
2.6.2009 5:38pm
Anderson (mail):
I suspect that you would be a bit upset, too

You might be surprised, actually, since learning about "propaganda" is a useful lesson.
2.6.2009 5:39pm
Seamus (mail):
Let me retract my last snark. Wikipedia tells me that the title of Newton's magnus opus, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, is often shortened to Principia Mathematica. (I'd always thought it was just "Principia." My bad.)
2.6.2009 5:42pm
CDU (mail) (www):

Uh, Whitehead and Russell wrote in English, not Latin.


My guess is Clayton neglected to follow the link and assumed Mark was talking about the other Principia Mathematica, which was written in Latin. Of course, that totally ruins the joke.
2.6.2009 5:45pm
DG:
{The antidote to a bad book is a good book.}

Bingo. As FIRE folks say, if you don't like speech, the solution is MORE speech, not suppression. The ideal remedy are more books!
2.6.2009 5:46pm
Nick056:
When a book is removed from a school because it doesn't provide sufficient instruction as to how oppressive neighboring nations are, at the behest of refugees from those nations, that's quite a pickle.
2.6.2009 5:49pm
Asher (mail):
No, it isn't, but it shouldn't be the court's job to step in and tell the Canadian school that they had to put those books back on the shelves, either.

Oh I agree, but only on the broad grounds that I just don't see a speech problem with this sort of thing, so long as the books aren't censored for purely ideological reasons. The narrower grounds that EV suggests - that the book can be suppressed because it omits important facts (implying that a book can't be suppressed because it omits not-so-important facts) - aren't convincing to me. Because there's nothing wrong with a kids' book about the U.S. that just says, our national bird is the bald eagle, we have a bustling film industry, a very large canyon in Arizona, we celebrate certain holidays, New York's our financial hub and a very big city, etc., and never gets to the politics.
2.6.2009 5:57pm
Seamus (mail):
CDU:

I too failed to follow the link, and thus totally missed the joke (and made an unnecessary withdrawal of my snark). I will now proceed to kick myself vigorously.
2.6.2009 5:58pm
Arkady:

I think that on balance this is an excellent illustration for why there shouldn't be any constitutional problem even with School Board members' removing a book "simply because they dislike the ideas contained in [the] book[]." But even if one takes the view that removal is permissible only when the book is inaccurate (or vulgar or some such), the School Board's decision that this book is inaccurate strikes me as eminently defensible -- in my view, actually correct, but in any case well within the School Board's rightful discretion to control what messages it conveys through its elementary school libraries.


Well, Ok. But then one should bear in mind Mark Twain's observation:


First God created idiots. That was for practice. Then He created school boards.
2.6.2009 5:58pm
A Law Dawg:
The passage of time has only confirmed Mr. Twain's observation.
2.6.2009 6:00pm
Seamus (mail):

Oh I agree, but only on the broad grounds that I just don't see a speech problem with this sort of thing, so long as the books aren't censored for purely ideological reasons.



Actually, I really don't see the problem with letting school boards pull books for ideological reasons. If a school board pulls my hypothetical "David Duke: Statesman and Thinker," or Mr. Cramer's hypothetical book about 1940s Germany, they'll be doing so for ideological reasons, but I'm OK with that. We choose school boards so that they'll exercise that kind of judgment. Sure, it means that sometimes we'll get school boards that want to ban "Where the Wild Things Are," but that's just an argument for picking school boards with better judgment, not for getting courts to prescribe rules that allow no judgment at all.
2.6.2009 6:04pm
Anderson (mail):
My guess is Clayton neglected to follow the link and assumed Mark was talking about the other Principia Mathematica, which was written in Latin.

Either way, some damn sharp 4th graders.
2.6.2009 6:07pm
Bob from Ohio (mail):

Its not a fact about Cuba, though. Its a value judgment about Cuba's political system.


Are "Nazi Germany was evil" or "South African apartheid was wrong" or "Jim Crow was immoral" mere "value judgments"?

Cuba is Communist, right?

It is a dictatorship, right?

Is you objection then based on "oppressive"?

If so, please name a Communist dictatorship that was not oppressive?
2.6.2009 6:28pm
Mr. Mandias (mail) (www):
The remedy is in the ballot box.

Or, of course, go by your own damn book for your damn kid.
2.6.2009 6:35pm
Asher (mail):
Actually, I really don't see the problem with letting school boards pull books for ideological reasons. If a school board pulls my hypothetical "David Duke: Statesman and Thinker," or Mr. Cramer's hypothetical book about 1940s Germany, they'll be doing so for ideological reasons, but I'm OK with that. We choose school boards so that they'll exercise that kind of judgment.

How about a school board that censored books written by notable Democrats or Republicans and only bought books on economics written by disciples of Keynes (or Friedman)? That sounds unconstitutional to me, not just bad as a matter of policy.
2.6.2009 6:41pm
neurodoc:
:
The book omits what to many people is the most important fact about Cuba — that it's an oppressive Communist dictatorship.
NTB24601Its not a fact about Cuba, though. Its a value judgment about Cuba's political system. That value judgment may be correct. Never having been to Cuba, I really don't know. Its certainly a value judgment that many Americans share. Nonetheless, I find it very troubling that a school board would exclude a children's book simply because it doesn't endorse their value judgments about a political system.
Really, it's not a fact that Cuba is a "Communist dictatorship," or it's not "an oppressive Communist dictatorship? Someone who asserts that is only expressing a "value judgment"? Would you dispute those who would say that Stalin's Russia was "an oppressive Communist dictatorship," or that Mao's China was one? What nonsense.

What parallel universe do you hail from that you are so uninformed? I spent a week in Cuba and can tell you I had not the slightest doubt while there that it was "an oppressive Communist dictatorship."
2.6.2009 6:59pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
I, too, come down on the side of the school board being able to decide what books its schools will have in their libraries. This a core function of the schools and does not implicate the first amendment.

On the policy issue, I think the correct standard is similar to that used in evidence admissability: Is the book, taken as a whole, more probative than prejudicial?

In addition, for the current case, I'll note that the book is intended for young children (4-8 years old, using the broadest range I saw in the opinion). This audience:

* Reads few books (one book a week is fairly common at this age), so is less likely to find contradictory information.
* Is more credulous than older readers, so is more likely to miss the signs of propaganda.

Using my proposed standard and considering the nature of the intended audience, I would sell the book at the next book sale the district holds.
2.6.2009 7:24pm
MarkField (mail):

I suspect that you would be a bit upset, too.


What Anderson said. I pretty much see it as life giving you lots of teachable moments.
2.6.2009 7:25pm
Auntie Nanuuq (mail) (www):
My gosh....If this is so, removing a book for what it does not have in its contents, then we are going to have to remove almost Every Single book written about the history of the California Missions (not to mention most u.s. &state history books), for they surely omit the genocide of the Native Americans.
2.6.2009 7:32pm
agohoalla (mail) (www):
MESSAGE
2.6.2009 7:35pm
Seamus (mail):
How about a school board that censored books written by notable Democrats or Republicans and only bought books on economics written by disciples of Keynes (or Friedman)? That sounds unconstitutional to me, not just bad as a matter of policy.

Would you really object if one of those "notable . . . Republicans" the school board was censoring was David Duke? Or if one of the "notable Democrats" was Pitchfork Ben Tillman or Theodore Bilbo?

I think the same about your hypothetical as I would about a school board that censored books written by notable Nazis, or Communists, or Black Panthers, and that only bought books on economics written by disciples of Ludwig von Mises, or Karl Marx, or Lyndon LaRouche. And that's that anyone who doesn't like it should get a new school board, or send his children to a private school, or homeschool them. (Those are not mutually exclusive options, of course.) I see no reason why Democrats and Republicans should be in a favorite category when it comes to constitutional protection.

In point of fact, school libraries exercise censorship all the time. Usually, however, it's exercised at the librarian level, not that of the school board, and it takes the form of putting books on the shelves like Vamos a Cuba, and never allowing an equivalent book about Rhodesia or about South Africa under apartheid to be added. Of course, the censorship is disguised under a lot of B.S. about how the librarians are only choosing on the basis of "quality" or "age appropriateness" or anything other than the real reason, which is the librarians have more ideological sympathy with Communist Cuba than they do with minority-ruled Rhodesia or South Africa. Rather than tolerate such hypocrisy, I say let the censorship out in the open, and let it be redressed through the political process.
2.6.2009 7:59pm
Fury:
Disclosure - I serve on a school board.

If district residents (including board members) found the book objectionable, my suggestion would be to purchase another book on Cuba that presents a differing viewpoint than A Visit to Cuba / Vamos a Cuba. Place the books side by side in the library. It would be a good opportunity for teaching when students realize the differences between the books and question why one book mentions something that the other does not. Problem solved.
2.6.2009 8:56pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
The antidote for a bad book is a good book. So cut out the middle man and put the good book on the shelf. Or assign the good one and leave the other to gather dust.

Xanthippas. Don't you think it would be a good idea to teach the kids that the school board is fooling them? Or should they continue to Believe until age, I dunno, maybe eighty or so?
2.6.2009 8:58pm
TokyoTom (mail):
Missing from this sturm and drang over what public schools teach, how they are managed and financed and what choices are allowed to children, parents or other users of the premises is the realization that all of this bickering is inevitable when we have governments running public schools, rather than leaving it entirely up to parents to determine what scools their children will attend.

Parents naturally - and rightly - have differing preferences. The problem is simply that when schools are public the only way they can express those preferences is by fighting with others over them. And when the schools are public, a whole host of "others" want to get into the act as well, from those who benefit from having governments fund schools to those who simply, because they have a tax dollar at stake, feel they`ve got as much right as anyone else to make everyone listen to their views. And gradually the fights are escalated and increasingly removed from the purview of parents.

We largely don`t have these fights with respect to private schools (though government funding always provides some kind of hook); how much simpler things would be if we privatized schools completely, and limited the government role to the provision of vouchers.
2.6.2009 11:36pm
NTB24601:
Seamus:

I don't think I (or Professor Volokh) would be going to court to get the school's action reversed. Instead, I'd work to get the government changed. Maybe the plaintiffs in this case should try that. I hear that in Miami they have these things called "elections" that people can actually use for that purpose (as opposed to the ones they hold in Cuba).

I don't know enough about First Amendment jurisprudence in this area to debate the merits of the plaintiffs' claim. I simply find it troubling for a public school to censor a children's book on the grounds that the book failed to express the school's value judgment about a political system. I don't think that public education should include censoring opinions about political systems. That smacks of indoctrination to me.

As for elections, relying on majority rule to protect unpopular opinions strikes me as a dangerous practice for a free society.
2.6.2009 11:37pm
NTB24601:
neurodoc:
Would you dispute those who would say that Stalin's Russia was "an oppressive Communist dictatorship," or that Mao's China was one?

I wouldn't dispute those statements, but I would dispute calling them "fact." Those are not statements of fact. Once we start using words like "oppressive," we have left the realm of fact and entered the realm of opinion and value judgment.
2.6.2009 11:51pm
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2.7.2009 12:39am
David M. Nieporent (www):
How about a school board that censored books written by notable Democrats or Republicans and only bought books on economics written by disciples of Keynes (or Friedman)? That sounds unconstitutional to me, not just bad as a matter of policy.
...
In point of fact, school libraries exercise censorship all the time.
...
I simply find it troubling for a public school to censor a children's book on the grounds that the book failed to express the school's value judgment about a political system.
...and other similar quotes.

All of which are category errors. This isn't censorship. It's not censorship any more than me choosing not to buy books written by William Faulkner is. The government taking books off the shelves of a bookstore is censorship; the government taking books off its own shelves is not, regardless of the motive.
2.7.2009 1:06am
bushbasher:
' In addition to agricultural field work being a mandatory part of school for Cuban children, the Human Rights Report found that elementary and secondary students receive “obligatory ideological indoctrination.” '

yes, thank god there's no mandatory indoctrination in america. just a nice, happy, doctrine-free country, peacefully sailing along.
2.7.2009 1:16am
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2.7.2009 7:08am
Randy R. (mail):
"Bingo. As FIRE folks say, if you don't like speech, the solution is MORE speech, not suppression. The ideal remedy are more books!"

Hurray! Someone finally gets it!

Why bother making all these judgments about whether a book is complete or not, or good or not? We will never agree. The easist, cheapest and best solution (because it avoids expensive litigation) is to simply buy another book that will make you happy, and put that on the shelf next to the offending book.

This way, you can't complain about indoctrination, and the students learn a valuable lesson compromise in a democracy, what propaganda is, that they can't trust adults to plan their education, that everything has many sides to it,and that if they want to be informed, they need to read more and more and more.

Those are all proper lessons, in my opinion. Others will no doubt disagree.
2.7.2009 1:11pm
kmg (mail):
Isn't EVERY book incomplete? I don't see this as helpful to defining the scope of the 1st Amendment in any way.

By this standard, I can't imagine any book written for children about a country in Latin America that would meet these standards for completeness.

Obviously the book is incomplete by not discussing Castro.

But is it then possible to write a book about Mexico without discussing the history of electoral fraud? The student massacre at Tlateloco?

A book about Guatemala without discussing the US-sponsored 1954 coup? Of the genocide perpetrated against indigenous Guatemalans? Of the current political violence?

A book about playing soccer in Argentina that doesn't discuss the dirty war and military dictatorship?

Where do these questions end?

I suppose I don't understand how this is a helpful distinction--of deciding what is complete or incomplete.

As a kid, I remember reading a large number of books in my school and public libraries that were inaccurate by omission. I solved the problem for myself by reading more.

Instead of focusing on removing books because of their omissions, we should focus on providing more information, adopting the principle that the solution to bad/hate/insufficient speech is "more speech." And then to work to make kids in any school they are at have the tools and curiosity to seek out more information by themselves. I think it would be inappropriate to have a book like that described as the ONLY book on Cuba. There are a lot of books from the perspective of those who are much more critical of the Castro regime. They should certainly be accessible to students.
2.7.2009 1:31pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Why bother making all these judgments about whether a book is complete or not, or good or not? We will never agree. The easist, cheapest and best solution (because it avoids expensive litigation) is to simply buy another book that will make you happy, and put that on the shelf next to the offending book.
Yes, but unfortunately, most libraries are fresh out of Bags of Holding, so they have to decide between books, rather than just adding new ones indiscriminately.
2.7.2009 2:41pm
trad and anon:
And it's the absence of this fact that makes the book misleading. As the opinion points out, the book is not that different from an "A Visit to 1930s and 1940s Germany" that omitted any mention of anti-Semitism or tyranny, or "A Visit to the early 1800s American South" that omitted any mention of slavery. Whether or not the book said "People in the Third Reich [or 1830 Alabama] ate and worked like you do," the main problem would be in what the book excluded not with what it included.
I know it's not traditional to call Godwin's Law on judges, but I'm going to do it anyway. The 11th Circuit loses.
The precedent seems like it's going to start a world of trouble, as we get into which books fail to state a "complete" (= "properly biased") view of the facts.
This sounds exactly right to me. With this type of book, ideology and viewpoint are all about which of the infinity of facts the book chooses to present. If a school board can remove any book that "omits important facts," they have a license to remove any book that presents an ideological viewpoint they disagree with.
2.7.2009 2:51pm
trad and anon:
But is it then possible to write a book about Mexico without discussing the history of electoral fraud? The student massacre at Tlateloco?

A book about Guatemala without discussing the US-sponsored 1954 coup? Of the genocide perpetrated against indigenous Guatemalans? Of the current political violence?

A book about playing soccer in Argentina that doesn't discuss the dirty war and military dictatorship?
A book about the Constitutional Convention that doesn't discuss the debate about slave importation? A book about great scientists that doesn't discuss Maxwell? A book about the Supreme Court that doesn't discuss Roe v. Wade? We're talking about books for third-graders here: they're necessarily very limited discussions of their subject matter.
2.7.2009 3:09pm
Randy R. (mail):
David: "Yes, but unfortunately, most libraries are fresh out of Bags of Holding, so they have to decide between books, rather than just adding new ones indiscriminately."

Perhaps so. But thelititgation for this particular case cost far more than buying one book. I would suspect that they few instances where there is a controversy can't amount to breaking the budget in most school districts.

And even if that's the problem, the solution is simple. If you don't like what is written in a book, write up a pamplet of your own -- research inforamation on the internet, download it, add your own contribution, place it next to the offending book, and voila! Problem solved.

And if a complaining person cant' do this simple solution, then you tell them to go away. If you have time to complain and a federal case out of one book, then you have time to be a part of the solution.
2.7.2009 3:59pm
MarkField (mail):

Isn't EVERY book incomplete?


Good question.
2.7.2009 5:09pm
Randy R. (mail):
kmg: "As a kid, I remember reading a large number of books in my school and public libraries that were inaccurate by omission. I solved the problem for myself by reading more."

How subversive of you. And they still let you graduate?
2.7.2009 6:13pm
Seamus (mail):

I simply find it troubling for a public school to censor a children's book on the grounds that the book failed to express the school's value judgment about a political system.


So if the school board decided to pull "David Duke: Statesman and Thinker," a book praising apartheid South Africa from the shelves, or the Institute for Historical Review, you'd support a lawsuit to force the school board to put them back on the shelves, and would say that the only legitimate remedy is to balance them with works taking the contrary position?


Why bother making all these judgments about whether a book is complete or not, or good or not? We will never agree. The easist, cheapest and best solution (because it avoids expensive litigation) is to simply buy another book that will make you happy, and put that on the shelf next to the offending book.


Apparently, Randy R. thinks that *is* the only remedy. I'll be sending his local school a set of works about how happy all the Bantu were under the old regime in South Africa, then, and leave him to find some anti-apartheid books to add for balance.
2.7.2009 6:17pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Perhaps so. But thelititgation for this particular case cost far more than buying one book. I would suspect that they few instances where there is a controversy can't amount to breaking the budget in most school districts.
You missed my point; I wasn't talking about cost, but about shelf space.

Your solution fails because it assumes that libraries can just keep adding new books.
2.7.2009 11:46pm
Kazinski:
EV:

To be sure, this is a fact that isn't trivial to convey to 4-to-8-year-olds...


But it can be done, recently I was driving in my car, and my 8 year old was denigrating the religious (his older brother and sister are very anti fundamentalist Christians, and I'm an atheist):


Him: People who belive in God are just worthless.
Me: You shouldn't ever say that anybody is worthless, you can think they are wromg, but that doesn't make them worthless.
Him: What about Commies?
Me: You've got me there.
2.8.2009 12:17am
Randy R. (mail):
David: "You missed my point; I wasn't talking about cost, but about shelf space.

Your solution fails because it assumes that libraries can just keep adding new books."

the number of controversial books in any school library is not in the hundreds, but just a handful. I can't believe that no school library has such limited space that they can't add another three or four books.

And again, no one argued in this case that shelf space is so limited that they could not add another book or two and solved the problem.

Seamus: "pparently, Randy R. thinks that *is* the only remedy. I'll be sending his local school a set of works about how happy all the Bantu were under the old regime in South Africa, then, and leave him to find some anti-apartheid books to add for balance."

It's certainly not the only remedy. You could just ban all books, for instance. But it is the only *libertarian* remedy.

Most school librarians that I've every heard of (from news reports, etc), state that they carefully pick and choose which books to buy. Most of the 'to buy' books are listed in reviews , commentaries, and newsletters circulated by librarians themselves becauset they know that they can'' read all the thousands of books published each year themselves. So they rely upon reputable third parties.

I highly doubt any reputable party will promote a book by David Duke that espouses racial commentary. If I am wrong, please correct it. Also, I have never seen a case involving banning a book written by someone like him. Again, correct me if I'm wrong.

So the chances of a someone objecting to a David Duke book on the shelves is exceeding rare, because it probably won't get on the shelf in the first place.
2.8.2009 8:23am
David M. Nieporent (www):
David: "You missed my point; I wasn't talking about cost, but about shelf space.

Your solution fails because it assumes that libraries can just keep adding new books."


the number of controversial books in any school library is not in the hundreds, but just a handful. I can't believe that no school library has such limited space that they can't add another three or four books.
But space is limited and many new books are published every year; they constantly need to be replacing books. Are you suggesting that they should only replace books that aren't controversial and refuse to replace the ones that are? That seems rather perverse.

It's certainly not the only remedy. You could just ban all books, for instance. But it is the only *libertarian* remedy.
No, the libertarian remedy is to "ban" [sic] all books, and by that I mean not have government-run libraries at all.

In any case, your David Duke answer seems to beg all sorts of questions. First, saying "it probably won't happen" isn't an answer at all.

Second, why is selecting books based on what "reputable third parties" say -- reputable third parties who presumably judge a book based in part on its viewpoint -- acceptable, but selecting books based on what people in the community say unacceptable?

Third, why is refusing to buy a positive book about David Duke not "banning" it, but replacing a positive book about David Duke with a negative one "banning" it? All the concerns people have expressed -- the freedom of authors to publish, the freedom of people to read different viewpoints, etc. -- are affected just as much if the "banning" occurs before purchase rather than after (except that the author makes some money if the library buys it and then removes it rather than failing to buy it in the first place).
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Seamus (mail):

Most school librarians that I've every heard of (from news reports, etc), state that they carefully pick and choose which books to buy. Most of the 'to buy' books are listed in reviews , commentaries, and newsletters circulated by librarians themselves becauset they know that they can'' read all the thousands of books published each year themselves. So they rely upon reputable third parties.

I highly doubt any reputable party will promote a book by David Duke that espouses racial commentary. If I am wrong, please correct it. Also, I have never seen a case involving banning a book written by someone like him. Again, correct me if I'm wrong.



In other words, we delegate to reputable third parties the judgments about which ideological outlooks we ought to discriminate against.
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