Miami-Dade Schools Censor Book On Cuba

The Miami-Dade School Board did nothing unconstitutional when it removed 'Vamos a Cuba' from library shelves, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the Miami-Dade School Board did not violate the Constitution in 2006 when it removed a controversial children's book about Cuba from the public schools' library system.

In a 2-1 decision, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta said the board did not breach the First Amendment, and ordered a Miami federal judge to lift a preliminary injunction that had allowed "Vamos a Cuba" to be checked out from school libraries.

The majority opinion supported the School Board's authority to set educational standards in Miami-Dade, saying the bilingual book, part of a library series on 24 nations, presented an "inaccurate" view of life in Cuba under its former leader, Fidel Castro.

"The record shows that the board did not simply dislike the ideas in the Vamos a Cuba book," appeals court Judge Ed Carnes wrote in the majority opinion. "Instead, everyone, including both sides' experts, agreed that the book contained factual inaccuracies."

But the three-judge panel's opinion -- not unlike the School Board's initial vote -- was so fraught with political rhetoric such as "book banning" that further appeals seem inevitable. Indeed, Carnes attacked the dissenting opinion's use of the phrase.

"That is a faulty foundation," he wrote in the 177-page ruling. "The board did not ban any book. The board removed from its own school libraries a book that the board had purchased for those libraries with board funds. It did not prohibit anyone else from owning, possessing or reading the book."

Some members of the School Board applauded the ruling.

"This vindicates those board members who said the book was inappropriate because it didn't depict reality," said Vice Chairwoman Marta Pérez. "We faced a lot of criticism."

Board member Ana Rivas Logan, who supported replacing the series with an updated version, said she was happy to see the appeals court give control to the district.

"This book was inaccurate, and it was offensive to a whole community," she said.

The ruling, written by Carnes and joined by U.S. District Judge Donald Walter of the Western District of Louisiana, concluded that the School Board also did not violate the due process rights of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The legal advocacy group had challenged the panel's decision to remove the book.

"Clearly, this can't be allowed to stand. We must take further action," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, saying attorneys met late Thursday to discuss what kind of appeal to file.

"We're going to take further action to prevent the shelves of the Miami-Dade school library from being scrubbed clean of viewpoints some people in the school find objectionable . . . However much they try to evade the facts and bend the law into a pretzel, censorship is censorship is censorship," Simon said.

In 2006, board members voted 6-3 to remove the book -- which had been available in some school libraries as extracurricular reading for children in kindergarten through the second grade -- after Juan Amador Rodriguez, a parent and former political prisoner in Cuba, complained that the book failed to accurately depict life there.

In removing the book, the board overruled the decision of two academic advisory committees and the recommendation of former Superintendent Rudy Crew. Legal costs in the case have exceeded $250,000.

After the ACLU challenged the board's decision, U.S. District Judge Alan Gold ruled that the School Board's opposition to the book was political and that it should add books of different perspectives to its collections instead of removing the offending titles.

On Thursday, one of the appellate judges in his dissenting opinion agreed with Gold.

"The banning of children's books from a public school library under circumstances such as these offends the First Amendment," wrote Appellate Judge Charles R. Wilson, who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton.

But Carnes, who was appointed by former President George H.W. Bush, sharply disagreed in the majority opinion, arguing that the School Board removed the book because it sugarcoated a Cuban society oppressed by the Castro government.

"What 'Vamos a Cuba' fails to mention, and takes great pains to cover up with its 'like you do' misrepresentations, is that the people of Cuba live in a state of subjugation to a totalitarian regime with all that it involves," Carnes said.

Crew's replacement as Miami-Dade schools chief seemed relieved that the appeals court's majority sided with the School Board.

In a prepared statement, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he was "glad to see the issue resolved in favor of the School Board."

"As Superintendent, I intend to lead this school district with a sensitivity for the rich history and culture that make up our community, and to always keep those ideals in mind as I bring recommendations to the School Board," Carvalho wrote.

The parent who started the controversy said he was was overjoyed to learn of the decision late Thursday.

"We can't put a book in the schools that lies about what happened in my country," said Juan Amador Rodriguez, father of a 13-year-old girl. "This is an important lesson for everyone. We can't allow the manipulation of the truth in our towns."

Amador Rodriguez said his fight against the book was an example of democracy in action.

"In Cuba, you don't have the right to question the education of your child," he said. "Here, I was able to stand up for what I believe in."

Miami Herald staff writer Jennifer Lebovich contributed to this report.