Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Vamos again... UPDATED

I have posted my feelings about Vamos a Cuba and the movement to remove it from local school library shelves. I was against removing the book because I felt (and still do) that this issue is a distraction that takes public focus away from the real Cuba debate: the lack of human rights, the political prisoners, the abuses of fidel castro and company. I also have a personal aversion to the control of information.

But now that a judge has ordered the book to be put back on library shelves the debate should rightly rise to another level.

We have a school board in Miami-Dade county that is elected by the people to represent them. The powers of the school board, by necessity, include making decisions on school curricula and also which books to stock on library shelves. There is a grievance process for books that might be deemed innappropriate (just like there are similar processes in every school district in the country). Surely we can't have pornography in elementary school libraries, right?

For better or for worse the Miami-Dade School Board voted to remove Vamos a Cuba from school libraries. While I personally disagree with the decision, I believe the board was well within its rights to do so.

So now a judge has arbitrarily ruled that the book be put back into circulation and I have a big problem with that strictly from a separation of powers standpoint. As usual the courts are overstepping their bounds and making public policy.

I'm not an attorney but I think it's important to distinguish this from a First Amendment case. Nobody is saying that the author of the book can't write it, or that the publisher can't publish it, or that booksellers can't sell it, or that libraries can't buy it. Any of these scenarios would clearly be a violation of the First Amendment.

At issue, now, is the right of a school board to do its job freely (at least the part of its job that involves review of library materials for suitability). A job that by definition requires a degree of subjectivity. What is acceptable in Miami might not be acceptable in the Mennonite community that Tour de France winner Floyd Landis grew up in.

So we have to ask ourselves this question: is a federal judge going to have to decide which books are available in schools from now on?


Thanks to Alesh at Critical Miami for linking to this post. But I have to respond to some of the snide comments that were posted there.

I’m somewhat amused at how Conductor believes his interpretation of the U.S. Constitution trumps that of a federal judge. But I guess that’s one reason why he’s tapping out posts on a blog and the judge is sitting behind the bench.
Did the Miami Dade School Board prevent the author from writing the book?

Did it prevent the book from being published?

Did it prevent anyone from selling the book?

Did it prevent anyone from buying the book?

Did it prevent anyone from reading the book?

It seems that we have different definitions of freedom of speech. Freedom to speak does not mean others have to listen.

The school board decided on behalf its stakeholders (the parents, students, and taxpayers) that it didn’t want to “listen” anymore to material that it considered at best insensitive and at worst outright propaganda for a murderous regime that many of those same stakeholders had fled.

And perhaps I’m no legal scholar but haven’t federal courts upheld slavery and segregation in the past? Just because you wear a robe and have a fancy degree doeesn’t mean the precedent you are setting is correct and it doesn’t mean that it will be adhered to forever.

I’m also no legal scholar, but it seems that the judge correctly determined that the book got yanked out of the library by ideologues, for ideologues.

The library can’t possibly stock every title ever written. Every book on the shelf has to be judged to be more suitable than some other book that isn’t on the shelf because of finite resources such as money and space. So there has to be some criteria to judge a work.

What you are saying is that the fact the content is offensive to a segment of the population is not grounds for exclusion. And my question is why not? That’s the way courts have interpreted obscenity for years, by local standards. I can’t fault a school board in a city with many Jews for not stocking Mein Kampf.

Again, let’s not make this into a watershed moment because it’s not. School boards pull books all the time, through very similar processes as this, because parents complain about about them not being suitable. A hearing is had and people vote. They should vote their conscience (Mr. Ingram) and if the people don’t like the way the authorized body ruled, then vote them out and bring the issue back on the table. That’s democracy.

Does the first amendment mean that public institutions have to buy and circulate an author's work regardless of its veracity or propensity to outrage constituents?

Does it mean that if these institutions do buy an author's work, that they must make it available in perpetuity?

If so, I'm in the wrong business. I should be writing my own series children's books and forcing them down the throats of school boards on the basis of the first amendment. On second thought I don't want to be in that business, lucrative though it might be because it sounds like extortion to me.


ziva said...

Conductor, while we disagreed about the decision to remove the book, we are on the same page now. As you know, I'm not a resident of south Florida, so I'm out of the loop on local politics but it seems to me this book should never have been in the library in the first place. Someone wasn't doing their job.

Matthew I. Pinzur said...

I'm not going to give my own opinion - it would be wrong since I cover this for the Herald. But your posts have been among the most insightful and thoughtful of comments I've read about this issue, so I figured I'd toss out some more nuggets for you to work with.

To one degree, your comments about it not being a First Amendment issue are true. The First Amendment doesn't force anyone to buy or make available any book. But the courts have repeatedly found that libraries enjoy certain protections that emenate from the First Amendment, as "free markets of ideas." That's part of the reason Judge Gold (and many prior judges and courts) have limited a school board's power to remove books.

One other point - a hair-split, but an important one. It's not the School Board's job to select library materials. It's the board's job to make rules about how the books are selected. As I've written in the Herald, those rules are not really being followed. I've franklky been a bit surprised the board hasn't been more aggressive in either re-writing those rules or directing the staff to find the money to start following them.

Anyway, glad to see some high-minded discussion of this debate. Keep it up.

Boli-Nica said...

Conductor, my problem with the way this whole issue is being discussed, is that first amendment considerations are pretty much irrelevant. You can not talk about it without talking about the politics.
This whole thing was either staged or was completely hijacked early by Frank Bolanos, for his political campaign. It is useless to argue in the abstract about the merits of the case.

Frank is the case. He played it for all it is worth, forcing the issue to go as far judicially as it could go. He purposefully avoiding any sort of compromise early on, going against well documented advice from school administrators and attorneys. It was his memorandum's to the administrators, his statements in the record of board hearings, that were among the most damning evidence that the Judge cited when he ruled against the School Board.

All this mis-spent anger at judges, the ACLU and the administrators was exactly what he wanted. And no one had the stones to call him on it. He's rocking on the taxpayers dime.