Highlighting Censorship: Tucson Unified School District

Some book challenges induce you to scratch your head with a combination of confusion, befuddlement and exasperation. Other, more brazen bans inspire actual outrage. The Tucson Unified School District’s decision in January to entirely dissolve its widely praised Mexican-American Studies program falls in this latter category.

The Tucson MAS program was judged to be illegal by Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, according to a state law banning racially divisive courses from being taught in public schools. Incidentally, Huppenthal himself helped craft the law, during his time as state senator. In January, Huppenthal warned he would cut millions of dollars from the district’s budget should it fail to modify or eliminate the program to comply with the law. The district chose elimination.

In addition to disbanding the program, TUSD removed hundreds of works that had been part of its curriculum. Books were boxed, sometimes in front of astonished students, classes were suspended and classrooms stripped of materials. Among the banned books were Rethinking Columbus: the Next 500 Years by Bill Bigelow, Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado, Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

A student, teachers and director of MAS have sued the state, challenging the law as a violation of their First Amendment rights. In February, hundreds of schools across the country participated in protests against the ban in a month-long event entitled “No History is Illegal.” The Kids’ Right to Read Project wrote a letter to the district signed by more than three dozen national and local organizations. We have been in discussions with the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

In July, a school board member brought a motion to “un-ban” the books (oddly the district had heretofore claimed they were not “banned” at all), probably in an attempt to gain good will in front of upcoming school board elections. That motion did not come to a vote.

The lesson of Tucson is an important one about the continuing presence of censorship in this country. The law against ethnic studies in Arizona clearly shows the lengths of which those with power will go to silence inconvenient, unpleasant or “dangerous” If you’ve find yourself thinking: “No one bans books anymore these days,” remember Tucson, and read on.