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October 24, 2014

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Library Advocates File Brief to Challenge Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Ban

The nonprofit Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF), joined by key library and learning advocates, on November 25 filed an amicus brief [PDF] with the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Arce v. Huppenthal [PDF], a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of an Arizona statute that bans ethnic studies. The statute violates students’ First Amendment rights to receive information and is unconstitutionally broad, Barbara M. Jones, FTRF’s executive director, tells School Library Journal.

ArizonaSchoolSign1 Library Advocates File Brief to Challenge Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Ban

Arizona Revised Statue § 15-112, passed in 2010, eventually led to the dismantling of a successful Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). The district faced the loss of significant state funding if it kept the program in place, so books and other learning materials were removed from classrooms and banned from being used by teachers.

Several students from the MAS program and teachers then challenged that decision in federal court on both First Amendment and Equal Protection grounds, and a protracted legal battle has followed. Although the first federal district court earlier this year found some of the statute unconstitutional, it upheld the remainder of its provisions, so the plaintiffs have now appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

Partners in protest
Joining the FTRF as signatories to the amicus brief are the American Library Association (ALA), the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA), the Black Caucus of the ALA (BCALA), the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), the National Association for Ethnic Studies (NAES), the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and REFORMA: The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking.

Many of these advocates have been monitoring Arizona for years, especially because the new statute “seemed politically and racially motivated,” Isabel Espinal, president of REFORMA, tells SLJ. “This wonderful curriculum,” she says, “was addressing a lot of issues within the schools. So finally these students’ needs were being addressed and they were succeeding.”

In response, REFORMA helped ALA create a resolution during its midwinter meeting in 2012—which focused on intellectual freedom—and passed its own resolution that addressed meeting the needs of Latino students. Both groups’ resolutions noted the dramatic rise in the rates of academic success, high school graduation, and college acceptance of students who participated in the MAS program.

Adds Jones, “[FTRF has] been watching since they dismantled the program. Librarians in Tucson let us know that it was happening. They were horrified. We knew the students were really being deprived.”

ABFFE, meanwhile, is among those supporter groups who have been waiting in the wings for the chance to sign on to an amicus brief to support the cause.

“We wanted to do everything that we could to fight this,” Chris Finan, ABFFE president, tells SLJ. “Never have I heard a story like this in which books were removed from the classroom under the eyes of the students and thrown into boxes that actually had the word ‘banned’ written on them. And I spent a lot of time verifying, in fact, that that’s what these people did, and so it was completely shocking.”

Meeting all students’ needs
Several groups are counted as key supporters even though they were not able to join the brief, Jones and Espinal say. Among these are advocacy group Librotraficante, which fights to get Latino books into libraries, and its “fearless leader” Tony Diaz, and Save Ethnic Studies, a Tucson-based advocacy group that offers a host of data and other resources proving the efficacy of such programs with students.

“I was totally inspired by Tony,” Jones says, “and he has won awards in the library community for his work on making all of us aware of how desperate this situation is, and how damaged kids get if they don’t have access to books about their own culture.” This is a key point in FTRF’s brief, she says.

“It is important that Latino children have access to books and curriculum about their own heritage and in their own languages,” Espinal tells SLJ. “Without this information they simply cannot thrive as full human beings.” In addition, “These students are living in a very oppressive environment,” she says. “One of the issues around that is how immigrants are viewed, and how immigrants are treated in Arizona. What [MAS] students say is that for the first time in their lives they felt like they mattered, at a very basic level. And it just shows the oppressive atmosphere that they’ve often had to live under.”

The brief also argues that there is no evidence that students in the MAS program learned “racial resentment” or discovered an interest in “overthrowing the U.S. government,” as supporters of the statute have contended, Jones says. “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.”

Non-Latino students also benefited from the program in many ways, Espinal and Jones add.

“In the Tucson classes, there were kids of all different ethnic backgrounds,” Jones says. “This argument that the state of Arizona is making that somehow ethnic studies make kids hate each other is just nuts. It makes you understand one another’s point of view and makes you want to ask questions.”

Ethnic studies are important for all students, notes Espinal, because “resentment and damage are created when there is exclusion of our history and our stories.”

The waiting game
Looking ahead, the advocates say they expect the Ninth Circuit decision to take many months, and a court date has not yet even been scheduled.

In that long interim, it is the students who lose out, Finan notes. Even if the appeals court rules in favor of restoring the MAS program, “there will be students for whom this can’t be remediated,” he says.

Finan also calls the TUSC’s recent decision to bring back into the classrooms as supplementary materials several books that were formerly part of the MAS program “too little, too late in terms of trying to undo the damage that has been done.” He adds, “That’s really what’s at the heart of this case, whether the state can apply these narrow partisan and political goals in shaping the curriculum of the schools…and committing pretty gross acts of censorship in the process.”

Sadly, “I think it’s very hard to get around that law,” Jones notes. “If [districts] need state money, they have to be really careful. They have to toe the line. And I think that that fear is in the minds of a lot of well-meaning administrators who would say, ‘This is a crazy law, but we’ve got to really be careful.’”

But FTRF will not be deterred, Jones says. The organization plans to host events around the country with its affiliate partners to create awareness and “keep the ball rolling regardless of how the court decides,” she says. “We will continue to educate people about the importance of Latino studies.”

REFORMA also will remain vocal, Espinal says. “If there are other small communities out there dealing with the same thing, we would definitely advocate and they can contact us. In Tucson it was seen as a local issue, but we thought it should be brought to the attention of the whole country.”

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.

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