Federal Judge Orders: Put Harry Back on Library Shelves

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On Tuesday, April 22, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas ruled in favor of two Cedarville, Arkansas, parents, Billy Ray and Mary Nell Counts, who challenged the Cedarville School District's attempt to restrict students' access to the Harry Potter series in school libraries. In March 2003, more than a dozen national groups, including the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), and author Judy Blume, filed an amicus brief in support of the parents.

"It is the bravery of people like the Counts that protects free speech in this country," said ABFFE President Chris Finan.

In the decision, U.S. District Court Judge Jimm L. Hendren said the books must be displayed "where they can be accessed without any restrictions other than those administrative restrictions that apply to all works of fiction in the libraries of the district."

The controversy over the Potter books began in June 2002, when a Cedarville parent, Angie Haney, who has two children attending Cedarville schools, filed a formal complaint with the Cedarville School District. In her complaint, she argued that the Potter series teaches children that parents, teachers, and rules are stupid or are something to be ignored and "that there are 'good witches' and 'good magic,'" as reported by the Fort Smith, Arkansas, Times Record.

The Library Committee voted 15-0 to reject Haney's complaint. However, the school board ignored the committee's decision and voted 3-2 to remove the series from the libraries' shelves.

The Counts, whose child, Dakota, attends Cedarville elementary school, filed a federal lawsuit on July 3 challenging the board's decision. They argued that the school board's decision violates their First Amendment right to free speech and to receive information. The school board responded to the Counts' lawsuit in August, arguing that it has the right to decide what is available in its libraries.

In his ruling, Hendren wrote: "[W]hile it is recognized that Boards of Education 'have important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions,' it is also recognized that there are 'none that they may not perform within the limits of the Bill of Rights. That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes."

"This is a complete victory," Brian Meadors, the attorney for the Counts, told BTW. "I think the Counts have been very courageous to be the named plaintiffs in the case. They are very patriotic people and very much disagree with censorship." The ruling, Meadors said, is effective immediately.

This was the first legal challenge to a restriction on the use of Harry Potter books in a public school. For the last four years, the Potter books have been the most frequently challenged books in the country, according to the American Library Association.

In addition to ABFFE and Judy Blume, the amicus brief is signed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Association of American Publishers, the Association of Booksellers for Children, the Center for First Amendment Rights, the Children's Book Council, Feminists for Free Expression, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the National Coalition Against Censorship, Peacefire, PEN American Center, People for the American Way Foundation, the Student Press Law Center, and Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts. --David Grogan