With the wave of a gavel and not a magic wand, Chief Judge Jimm Larry Hendren of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas granted a family's request to remove access restrictions and place the Harry Potter series back on library bookshelves available to readers of all ages. The ruling, which was issued Tuesday, has been hailed as a victory for the First Amendment in the constant battle against censorship.
The lawsuit was brought by the parents of a fourth grader after the Cedarville School Board decided that young readers who wanted to delve into the fictional world of Harry Potter's magic needed to get their parents' permission. To implement the policy, the School Board removed the popular children's series from the generally accessible library stacks and restricted access based on adult clearance. In filing the case against such blatant censorship, the fourth grader's parents said they feared their daughter would be stigmatized if she were identified as someone who read the ''evil books.''
Children's author Judy Blume and several free speech organizations filed an amicus brief in support of the family's challenge, stating that the decision to censor the Harry Potter books "trample[d] on the students' fundamental right to receive information and ideas." Unfortunately, the court, in response to defendant School Board's continuing censorship attempt and objection to the brief, noted the rarity of amicus briefs generally filed at the district court level and found "the better course for it to follow is to simply not include the amicus brief in the matters it will consider in this case."
In ruling for the plaintiff, the court concluded that "the stigmatizing effect of having to have parental permission to check out a book constitutes a restriction on access," one which has been significantly limited by U.S. Supreme Court decisions that "stress the importance of freedom of speech in the education of America's youth" and recognize "that a school library is an 'environment especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students.'"
The court victory marked a free speech trouncing of the Cedarville School Board's pro-censorship stance. Earlier this month, Robert O'Neil, founding director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, announced that the Cedarville School District was one of the winners of the 12th Annual "Jefferson Muzzle," a dubious distinction bestowed upon the country's top stiflers of free speech, because of the district's attempt to quash the free speech rights of students.
In Harry Potter-speak, it's a well-deserved Muzzle for an anti-free speech group of Muggles.
To read more information about this lawsuit, click here.April 24, 2003
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