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A federal appeals judge asked an attorney Wednesday whether a disputed children's book about Cuban life that omits mention of Fidel Castro's Communist government is the same as one about Adolf Hitler that doesn't mention the Holocaust. The discussion came as the Miami-Dade County School District asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for permission to remove 49 copies of Vamos a Cuba (A Visit to Cuba) from its libraries. The board argues that the English and Spanish book for 5- to 8-year-olds is inaccurate about life in Cuba.

Senior Circuit Judge Donald Walter presented the hypothetical situation about Hitler to American Civil Liberties Union attorney JoNel Newman, asking her if a school board would be allowed to remove that book from library shelves.

Newman answered by saying that the book about Cuba was a geography book about daily life on the island, not about Castro.

"The political reality in Cuba is not what the book is about, " Newman said. "The School Board can't remove it because it wishes to inject a political message into it."

Board members voted last year to remove the book after a parent who spent time as a political prisoner in Cuba complained. Cuban-Americans, most of them anti-Castro, have significant political sway as the largest ethnic group in Miami.

In seeking to remove the book, the board overruled the decision of two academic advisory committees, as well as the county school superintendent.

But another parent and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida challenged the removal. A federal judge ruled last summer that the board's opposition to the book was political and that it should add books of different perspectives to its collections instead of removing the offending titles. The ACLU contends that diverse opinions should be represented in school libraries.

Circuit Judge Ed Carnes presented his own hypothetical, asking Newman if a book about North Korea could be pulled from shelves because it failed to mention problems in that Communist government.

Newman countered by saying such political discussions shouldn't be required for books for elementary students, arguing whether a book about the Great Wall of China must mention Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-tung.

On another issue, the third member of the appeals panel, Circuit Judge Charles Wilson, asked if a book had to be part of the curriculum or required reading in order to be removed from school libraries, where it was available for checkout on a voluntary basis.

"If a book is educationally unsuitable, it can be removed, " said Richard Ovelmen, the School Board's attorney.

Also at issue is whether the ACLU has standing to file its legal challenge.

The court hasn't indicated when it would rule.


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