Coalition Files Brief in Support of First Amendment Rights of Arizona Students

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Last week, The Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) joined the American Library Association (ALA), the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), and several literacy and free speech organizations in filing an amicus brief in Arce v. Huppenthal, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of an Arizona law that forced the removal of seven books that were required reading in the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in the Tucson Unified School District. The program was subsequently eliminated.

The FTRF brief argues that the enactment of the 2010 law was the result of a four-year campaign by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne and his successor, John Huppenthal, who repeatedly expressed hostility toward the MAS program. The law provides that school districts will lose 10 percent of their funding if they offer courses that promote the overthrow of the government; encourage “resentment toward a race or class of people”; are “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group”; or advocate “ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

Horne declared the MAS program in violation of the law on December 30, 2010. He was succeeded by Huppenthal, who had sponsored the law as a legislator. When an audit of the MAS program declared that it did not violate the law, Huppenthal conducted a personal review and concluded that some of the classroom materials were prohibited. In January 2012, books used in the program were collected from students and placed in boxes marked “banned.” A lawsuit challenging the law was filed by students and teachers. A federal judge rejected most of the claims, and the decision is being appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The FTRF brief argues that the Arizona law violates the First Amendment in two ways. First, it denies students their right to receive information. While school boards have considerable discretion in shaping curriculum, they may not exclude material based on political or partisan interests. The brief asserts that Horne and Huppenthal through a series of actions and statements showed animus toward the MAS program and Mexican immigrants.

The FTRF brief claims that the Arizona law also violates the First Amendment by adopting a definition of prohibited material that is so broad that it could discourage teachers from assigning literary works by authors such as Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, Joseph Conrad, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X.

“In submitting this brief, the Freedom to Read Foundation is standing up for the right of all Arizona students to a curriculum based on educational merit, not political motivation,” said Executive Director Barbara M. Jones. “Students in the MAS program improved their educational performance. And there is no evidence that those students learned ‘racial resentment’ or discovered an interest in ‘overthrowing the U.S. government,’ as the proponents of Arizona HB 2281 contended. Providing young people with access to a wide range of ideas, including those about different cultures, helps them to think critically, become better citizens, and succeed in family and workplace life. Censoring ideas promotes ignorance and fear.”

“This is one of the most egregious cases of book banning in many years,” ABFFE President Chris Finan said. “School officials do not have the right to pull books because they disagree with the ideas that they express.”

Other organizations involved in the suit are the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, Black Caucus of the American Library Association, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, National Association for Ethnic Studies, National Coalition Against Censorship, National Council of Teachers of English, and REFORMA: The National Association to Promote Library & Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking.