Harry Potter and the Order of the Cedarville School Board

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Author Judy Blume

On March 3, a dozen national groups and author Judy Blume filed an amicus brief in support of two Arkansas parents who are challenging in federal court the decision by the Cedarville School District to restrict access to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series in school libraries. The groups contend that the school district's decision violates the plaintiffs' First Amendment right to receive information and ideas. This is the first legal challenge to a restriction on the use of Harry Potter books in a public school.

"It is incredible that school officials have censored books that are exciting a whole generation of kids about reading," Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), said.

The controversy with 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 and ordered that children may only access the Potter books with parental permission.

Billy Ray Counts, a member of the library committee, and his wife, Mary Nell Counts, filed a federal lawsuit on July 3 challenging the school board's decision. The Counts, whose child attends Cedarville elementary school, contend that the school board's decision violates the 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.

The plaintiffs and the groups that filed the amicus brief disagree. Theresa Chmara, one of the attorneys for amici, noted that, while school boards have broad discretion to determine school curriculum and what texts will be used, they may not restrict access to books in a school library simply because they dislike ideas contained in those books. "They are removing these books because they don't like them, and they haven't even read them," she said.

In their amicus brief, the groups, citing a previous case, noted, "'If petitioners intended by their removal decision to deny respondents access to ideas with which petitioners disagreed, and if this intent was the decisive factor in petitioners' decision, then petitioners have exercised their discretion in violation of the Constitution.' Pico, 457 U.S. at 871…. The deposition testimony of the Cedarville Board members makes their unlawful motivations abundantly clear. The decisive factor for each was a desire to restrict access to ideas and views they disliked."

On March 3, attorneys for the Counts submitted a motion for summary judgment, urging the judge to make a decision based on the facts that have been presented in documents submitted to the court. The Cedarville School District has 30 days to respond. At that time, the judge can either grant summary judgment -- meaning the Potter books would be accessible to students without parental permission -- or order a hearing.

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. -- Dave Grogan