Monday, July 17, 2006

Ban of book on Cuba lands in court

Ban of book on Cuba lands in court
By Jim Loney

MIAMI (Reuters) - A children's book that fails to paint a harsh picture of communist Cuba is at the heart of the latest battle between Cuban exiles in Miami and civil libertarians over cherished U.S. free-speech rights.

A federal court is scheduled to hear arguments this week in a lawsuit against the Miami-Dade County School Board's decision in June seeking to ban the book, called "Vamos a Cuba" in Spanish and "A Visit to Cuba" in English, from elementary school libraries.

Critics say the book's pictures of smiling Cuban children and bland generalities, meant to teach 5- to 7-year-olds about life on the island, distort the harsh realities of food rationing, one-party political rule and other facets of life under a brutal communist dictatorship.

"The book teaches our kids that Cuba is a paradise," said Julio Cabarga, president of the exile group Cuban Patriotic Council. "We want to make sure our community knows that we are against the pack of lies, half-truths and deceit that this book is projecting to our kids and our grandkids."

The American Civil Liberties Union, joined by the school district's student government association, sued to have the book restored to library shelves on the grounds that the ban violated the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guaranteeing free speech.

The ACLU says the case is the first major legal battle over book censorship by a U.S. public school system since 1982.

JoNel Newman, a University of Miami professor and ACLU lawyer, said school districts are limited in what they can legally remove from library shelves.

"You can't discriminate on the basis of content, or make political decisions on what you take out of a library," she said.

"It was because of community sensitivity that the book was pulled, and the First Amendment doesn't allow that," she said.

Frank Bolanos, the school board member who led the fight to ban "A Visit to Cuba," said the case is not about free speech, vowing he would defend the right of author Alta Schreier to write the book, of the publisher to print it and of a citizen to buy it.

"But we cannot and must not use taxpayer dollars to buy communist propaganda," he said.


Miami-Dade County public officials have been embroiled before in controversy about free-speech rights triggered by Cuban-American anger toward Cuban President Fidel Castro.

In 1999, Miami International Airport banned an issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine that contained a story deemed too flattering to the Cuban leader. Civil liberties advocates accused officials of the same kind of free-speech violations for which Castro is vilified in Miami, and the ban was lifted.

The school board's recent decision spurred charges that members were pandering to the county's huge Cuban community rather than focusing on improving education.

Miami is the heartland of anti-Castro opposition and counts among its 650,000 residents of Cuban descent thousands who lost property and livelihoods during the island's revolution.

U.S. District Judge Alan Gold, who is scheduled to hear arguments in the case on Friday, told the school district on June 28 to keep the banned book until he can issue a ruling.

Leonard Pitts, a Miami Herald columnist, noted that the school board's own lawyer warned board members that banning the book violated the district's policies and would probably be defeated in court, and that an expert said taxpayers could be stuck with a $300,000 legal bill.

"Three hundred grand. To fight over a children's book. And, in all probability, lose. Can you spell idiocy, boys and girls?" Pitts wrote. "If you were educated in a Miami public school, there's a good chance you can't. Yet, the school board has $300,000 to waste on this foolishness?"