The False Report of Banned Books In Tucson: The Tempest in the Arizona Teapot

Last Friday afternoon, author Jeff Biggers published an article at Salon entitled Who’s Afraid of “The Tempest”? The cognitive lede, and framing for the article as a whole, is contained in the first sentence:

As part of the state-mandated termination of its ethnic studies program, the Tucson Unified School District released an initial list of books to be banned from its schools today.

Biggers goes on to report and discuss on a litany of books and textbooks – even Shakespeare’s The Tempest – that were removed from Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) classrooms:

Other banned books include “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by famed Brazilian educator Paolo Freire and “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos” by Rodolfo Acuña, two books often singled out by Arizona state superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal, who campaigned in 2010 on the promise to “stop la raza(sic).

It is a rather stunning, and alarming, report fashioned by Mr. Biggers and, little wonder, it swept like fire across the progressive internet, and social media like Twitter and Facebook over the King Holiday weekend. Biggers’ Salon article served as the basis for reportage of the banning of books, including Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in a plethora of media sources from such internet venues as AlterNet, to mainstream media like The Tucson Citizen, New York Daily News, and The Wall Street Journal.

There is only one problem with this story. It is categorically and materially false. No books have been banned in Tucson by the TUSD, much less Shakespeare’s classic, The Tempest.

Sensing that Biggers’ story did not sound correct, nor comport with my understanding of the law in this subject area here in Arizona, I was able to make contact with officials at TUSD over the Martin Luther King extended holiday weekend and spoke with an official on Monday, even though the school system was officially closed. It is an understatement to say they were dismayed and concerned; it is “disingenuous to say ‘banned'” said Cara Rene, Communications Director for the TUSD.

Indeed, upon returning to their offices Tuesday, the TUSD put out, through Ms. Rene, an official News Release stating:

Tucson Unified School District has not banned any books as has been widely and incorrectly reported.

Seven books that were used as supporting materials for curriculum in Mexcian American Studies classes have been moved to the district storage facility because the classes have been suspended as per the ruling by Arizona Superintendent for Public Instruction John Huppenthal. Superintendent Huppenthal upheld an Office of Adminstriation Hearings’ ruling that the classes were in violation of state law ARS 15-112.

The books are:
Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado
500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures edited by Elizabeth Martinez
Message to AZTLAN by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales
Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement by Arturo Rosales
Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuna
Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years by Bill Bigelow

NONE of the above books have been banned by TUSD. Each book has been boxed and stored as part of the process of suspending the classes. The books listed above were cited in the ruling that found the classes out of compliance with state law.

Every one of the books listed above is still available to students through several school libraries. Many of the schools where Mexican American Studies classes were taught have the books available in their libraries. Also, all students throughout the district may reserve the books through the library system.

Other books have also been falsely reported as being banned by TUSD. It has been incorrectly reported that William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is not allowed for instruction. Teachers may continue to use materials in their classrooms as appropriate for the course curriculum. “The Tempest” and other books approved for curriculum are still viable options for instructors.

Oh, my, that is fundamentally and materially different than what Mr. Biggers both stated, and inferred, isn’t it? It was excessive and inflammatory hyperbole, and that is not a good thing as it paints the TUSD, and the Arizona school and educational system in a false, and prejudicially negative, light. I know many teachers and administrators in the Phoenix area, and they were outraged. “Banning of books” is an extremely negative concept both emotionally and legally; it is an extremely serious allegation, and not one to be made lightly or inaccurately.

There are a LOT of very good people in the State of Arizona, and the bad that is going on here (and there IS plenty of bad too) should be painted large and loud for what it is, but not in brush strokes so big and hyperbolic as to give a false picture of the story and state. I dislike the existence and effect of HB 2281, the law that has created this controversy over ethnic studies, every bit as much as Mr. Biggers honestly seems to; but do not want that to be used as a whipping post to make Arizona an ogre in ways it truly does not deserve. And that was the effect of his January 13, 2012 article in Salon.

You would probably think this particular story, and my report on it, ends here for now. It does not and, for once, that is a very positive thing. Over the King Holiday weekend, in addition to contacting the TUSD, I also contacted Salon regarding my concerns. They were, under the circumstances, both cordial and professional. Early this afternoon a notice of correction was placed at the bottom of the original story, and a new report by Jeff Biggers, far more accurately portraying the facts on the ground in Tucson, was published by Salon. Salon, and its editors, are to be commended and applauded for their willingness to listen and act responsibly.

Which brings us to the bigger picture. Demagoguery and hyperbole are something that all of us do who write on emotional hot button issues; which are about the only kind of issues we do here at Emptywheel. I have noticed the same phenomenon in the progressive blogosphere and media acutely prevalent on torture, Bradley Manning, Occupy Wall Street and, just recently, the NDAA. Emotion and illustration are good; facts and truth are better.

21 replies
  1. JohnLopresti says:

    Off topic: a reading I happened to find on the ML King day regarding electoral politics and urban gerrymandering, is there. The discussion is mostly Baker v Carr and Reynolds v Sims, two 1960s US supreme court cases. The document is 1.5 MB; it consists of a book chapter by Douglas Smith 23 pp, chapter title Into the Political Thicket; Reapportionment and the rise of suburban power. The economic slant the supreme court chose was an interesting approach to a topic that would have been more emotional viewed in less ingenious terms.

  2. Heather says:

    They are banned. They cannot use them for instruction. It is censorship. Boxing them up to be put away at the district is still banning them.

  3. rosalind says:

    thanks, bmaz. i’d been meaning to ask you about the Salon article, and appreciate your efforts and results, especially over the holiday weekend. and props to Salon and Jeff Biggers for correcting the record.

  4. bmaz says:

    @Heather: They are NOT banned; did you not actually read the post. The books ARE available for instruction in other classes. Oh, and by the way, not only are the books not “banned” the law has no provision for banning of books in the first place. Even if it would have has such a provision, neither the independent audit nor the decision of the State Superintendent found any books to be in violation of the constructs of the law (only the classes were).

    I dislike this law with every fiber of my being, but people should be honest about what is, and what is NOT, going on.

  5. Michael says:

    Bmaz–it may be correct that in a technical sense they are not banned but aren’t you missing the forest for the trees? The important point is that in fact the books can only be discussed in certain spaces and not in others and only in certain ways because they have eliminated an entire program of study.

    I suppose you could say that they have agreed that these books can be discussed in “quiet rooms” like Romney’s, but the overall point of trying to limit open discussion and dissent remains.

  6. bmaz says:

    @Michael: I think there is both a quantitative and qualitative difference between disbanding classes and banning books. When the books are available in the District’s libraries, and are available for use in other classes throughout the district as appropriate, then it is simply duplicitous to say that the books are banned. Because they are simply not.

    The law is horrible, but that does not give carte blanche to materially misrepresent what is going on.

  7. Bob Schacht says:

    Thanks, bmaz, for taking the time to research this, and write this diary about it. I appreciate your more accurate summary. I also appreciate your conclusion:

    Demagoguery and hyperbole are something that all of us do who write on emotional hot button issues; which are about the only kind of issues we do here at Emptywheel. I have noticed the same phenomenon in the progressive blogosphere and media acutely prevalent on torture, Bradley Manning, Occupy Wall Street and, just recently, the NDAA. Emotion and illustration are good; facts and truth are better.

    One of the many things that I highly favor about this Emptywheel blog is the time you and EW take to get the sources right and check the facts. In some other well-known lefty blogs, there is a lot of hot air, flaming and venting. There is a place for that, but all that heat is the basis for the mainstream media’s distorted perception of the (lack of) value of blogs.

    I appreciate this also because, having attempted to write a small number of blogs myself, I know that it takes a lot of effort to pull the primary sources together, and check the facts. Thank you (and EW) for those considerable efforts.

    Bob in AZ

  8. bmaz says:

    @Bob Schacht: Thank you Bob. Honestly, we are certainly not immune to the phenomenon here either, or at least I am not. I get pretty amped up over the antics of the DOJ, and sometimes come back a few days later and think “geez, I could have toned that down a little”. In the long run though, it does neither readers nor the underlying cause any good to go overboard.

  9. Michael says:

    Bmaz–as i said, they may not be banned but it seems to me that “disbanding classes” as you put it is equally misleading. You disband a class when you drop an individual class because of scheduling or enrollment problems. This is the suppression of a well- regarded and established program in an attempt to deny a whole range of dissent and alternatives within american history. The tempest in this teapot is the salon headline not what it–admittedly hyperbolically–was trying to draw attention to.

    I also wonder about your confidence that these books are being made available in other classes. Shakespeare sure. Takaki? Acuna? I’m not as sanguine as you seem to be.

  10. xicano says:

    Bmaz-I recommend that you and your readers watch the video at the link below in which a Tuscon teacher explains that she and other selected teachers may not use the books in question. If they do, they will be reprimanded by the district. Most of the teachers singled out also taught in the outlawed Mexican American Studies program. Apparently, the books themselves are less the issue than the way they were being taught and to whom they are being taught. I know you will agree that banning specific kinds of pedagogy is a dangerous slippery slope, especially when that pedagogy has helped students finish school and even go to college.

  11. GKJames says:

    Agreed as to the need for accurate reporting. That said, the issue is less about the books (we’re just putting ’em in storage … a classic) than about the suspension of the classes using those books. Do we know which parts of ARS 15-112 — cursory read of which suggests schizophrenia — were deemed objectionable by the Superintendent?

  12. bmaz says:

    @Michael: I grew up around teachers and educators generally. The term “banning books” is loaded and hated. The reason Biggers used it so liberally throughout his piece was to incited emotion and scare people into action. The problem with it is that it is false.

    Yes, I absolutely know and think the underlying law is the real problem; in fact that is the entire point of my post. Being dishonest to people about what is going on is not the right way to fight the battle. It shifts the ground and allows the crazies to just paint the anti-HB 2281 people as liars and dishonest. It is an unnecessary and dishonest diversion from the real problem. And the picture of Arizona schools “banning books” tars a lot of fine educators with something they do not deserve and that is patently dishonest.

    Lastly, why should the TUSD be taking the heat for this? The classes were shut down because they were ordered to by state law and by the legal system for the issue. People should stop and consider, this is the district that had the forward thinking program and classes to start with; yet now Biggers and many others are attacking them for something that is NOT their doing. There IS a problem here, but false accusations are being hung on the wrong people out of rank demagoguery. That is my point.

  13. bmaz says:

    @xicano: I have seen the video. And while I think this teacher misunderstands slightly what is legally the posture they are in, I think they ARE under the gun down there. And I think her administration at TUSD is being awfully careful, but this decision was just issued finally less than two weeks ago, after the semester had already begun. And the threat of withholding of funds is very real and as tight and underfunded as schools here currently are, a 10% cut would cripple a school almost immediately.

    This law is vile, and must be fought, but the targets should be the State Superintendent Huppenthal, and the former State Superintendent who created and gestated the law, Tom Horne. Horne is now the Attorney General here. Of, and the bigoted right wing in the State Legislature who passed the law. Attacking the TUSD and accusing them of things that are not true is not the proper argument.

  14. ron says:

    The TUSD is engaged in semantic sophistry. They may not have banned the books, but they euspended the courses they were being used in and boxed up the books (except for an copy or two that will be available on request from the library.) In essence, the books will no longer be readily available to most students in the district and, more importantly, the classes they were used in are forbidden to be taught. You don’t have to ban books if you make them no longer avaialble to most folks.

  15. bmaz says:

    That is false. The TUSD is completely accurate to say the books are not banned. in short order, those books boxed up will also be available in the general library system or be assigned in other classrooms. You seem not to allow for the fact that this is all being done pursuant to state administrative legal orders and court orders; TUSD is simply complying with them. Secondly you seem to not realize that this reclassification has been in effect and being sorted out for only eight days, three of which were lost to a federal and state holiday weekend. Dumping on TUSD is wrongheaded.

  16. Prefer Anonimity says:

    I have taken the time to read the reports you’ve sourced and criticized as inaccurate, and I think you, too, may have been too hasty to believe your own sources.

    It’s not evident at all what happened here, it’s not evident whether adminstrators did indeed make it known to teachers that they better not teach The Tempest — and if they do, they better watch what they say — and in short, it’s not evident whether there has been a curtailment of First Amendment rights, or an overreaction by some. It doesn’t sound like we even agree as to what the word “banned” means.

    But there is a more important point. I agree that people should not be hasty to charge anyone with banning books. This is, after all, a serious charge. That doesn’t, however, shift the burden of proof the way you claim it does.

    Government is not supposed to chill free speech in the classroom in this manner — not even in a high school classroom, where the students aren’t adults yet. It is government that is supposed to watch out not to violate First Amendment rights, and to be called on it if they do. It seems to me that saying a person has to have incontrovertible proof that speech has been chilled before launching a defense is fundamentally wrong.

    I don’t know whether journalistic standards were met in this case, and it looks to me like they may not have been. But to say that the standard for sounding the alarm on free speech is as high as you claim — and that until we’re sure, we need to defer to authority — is worse.

    In short, this exchange is a great example of how we need to be skeptical of nearly everybody these days.

  17. Prefer Anonimity says:

    Huh. I just read all this stuff a second time.

    Are you sure the story was factually wrong in the first place? Are you sure the school district didn’t clean up its First Amendment violation, or at least take care to clarify its position on this extremely important issue of academic freedom, precisely in response to the outrage? When it comes to the First Amendment and government, it pays to be real, real clear.

    And since when is “there are a lot of good people in Arizona” evidence of anything? Good people have never acquiesced to civil liberty violations? I know you don’t think that, so why the non sequitor?

  18. bmaz says:

    @Prefer Anonimity: I have no idea what you are referring to with regards to shifting the burden of proof. I simply said that the truth should be honored and the truth, which was easily ascertainable by Biggers, was that no books have been “banned”. Further the government chilling of free speech you describe is a function of the state legislature and department of education, not the TUSD. You are right, that should not occur, and I made quite clear that it was a heinous law. The problem with laws, heinous or not, is that those underneath them must comply with those laws (unless an injunction is granted), while trying to overturn them. Biggers initial report was clearly false in its letter and inferences. That has been corrected now.

    As to this statement

    But to say that the standard for sounding the alarm on free speech is as high as you claim — and that until we’re sure, we need to defer to authority — is worse.

    I did nothing of the sort. That, itself, is hyperbole.

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