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High School Students and Textbook Author Charge Texas State Board of Education Officials with Censorship

TLPJ Files First Amendment Lawsuit Against Board Members for Rejecting Environmental Science Textbook

Adele Kimmel, Daniel Chiras, and Steve Baughman Jensen. Photo by Jonathan Hutson.
Adele Kimmel, Daniel Chiras holding his censored textbook, and Steve Baughman Jensen. Photo by Jonathan Hutson.

Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ), a national public interest law firm, filed a First Amendment lawsuit on October 30, 2003 in Dallas against Texas State Board of Education officials, charging that their November 2001 decision to reject an environmental science textbook for use in public high schools constitutes censorship in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment prohibits government officials from censoring speech because of the message or viewpoint it conveys. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas to vindicate the free speech rights of the author, as well as tens of thousands of Texas public high school students who have been denied access to the textbook.

The textbook at the center of this lawsuit is "Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future (6th Edition)" by Daniel D. Chiras, Ph.D., and published by Massachusetts-based Jones and Bartlett Publishers. The book has been widely used for over 20 years in top-tier universities including Baylor University in Waco and the University of Texas at Tyler. Despite the fact that Texas’ Commissioner of Education recommended adopting Dr. Chiras’ book, and that review panels of science professors at Texas A&M University and the Science Teachers Association of Texas had given the book high marks, the Board voted to reject the book.

"The Board’s rejection of this widely-used textbook was not based on any legitimate concerns for factual accuracy or curriculum fulfillment," said TLPJ lead counsel Steve Baughman Jensen of Dallas’ Baron & Budd, P.C. "The Board rejected the book because 10 of its 15 members disagreed with Dr. Chiras’ viewpoints on environmental and economic issues, views based on 30 years of scientific study. This lawsuit aims to expose this blatant censorship and end this unconstitutional behavior."

The class action lawsuit charges Board officials with violating the plaintiffs’ free speech rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. §1983. The plaintiffs seek a court order declaring that the Board members’ rejection of Dr. Chiras’ book was unconstitutional and requiring the book’s inclusion on the list of state-approved texts. Dr. Chiras also seek damages from several current and former Board members in their personal capacities, stemming from the lost sales caused by their censorship.

Texas is one of the country’s largest textbook markets – second only to California – and often sets the agenda for classroom texts nationwide. As a result, the Board’s rejection of Dr. Chiras’ book had a nationwide "ripple effect," causing schools in other states to decide against purchasing the book. This magnified the infringement on free speech rights, as well as the damages resulting from lost sales.

Photo of textbook, Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future, by Daniel D. Chiras, Ph.D.

"I was stunned by the Board’s decision to reject my textbook," said Dr. Chiras. "Texas public high schools used an earlier edition of my book, and colleges across the country, including a state university in Texas, have used the current edition. It is incredibly offensive and unfair that my book was falsely portrayed as ‘anti-Christian’ when this same book is used at Baylor University – a top-tier Christian school and Texas’ oldest university."

Though most states select textbooks on a school-by-school or district-by-district basis, Texas adopts textbooks through a formal statewide process. Every year, the Board votes on a list of books submitted for adoption in subject areas scheduled for review that year, then provides the state’s public schools with a list of approved books from which to choose. Local school districts may use state funds only to purchase Board-approved textbooks. Before the Board’s final vote, the books are vetted in a rigorous process that includes review by textbook panels appointed by the Texas Commissioner of Education, reports by the Commissioner to the Board recommending whether to adopt or reject a textbook, written comments from Texas residents, and public hearings in which residents, experts, and publishers may comment.

Three environmental science textbooks, including Dr. Chiras’ text, were submitted to the Board for approval in 2001. All three books were submitted for use in general high school environmental science classes, but Dr. Chiras’ book was the only one also submitted for Advanced Placement classes. The Board approved one environmental science textbook without requiring any changes; that book was partly financed by a consortium of mining companies. The Board ultimately approved, but had preliminarily rejected, another textbook after it was modified in response to political criticisms by two conservative "think tanks" in Texas – Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE). The publisher of the preliminarily rejected text, J.M. LeBel Enterprises, sharply criticized the approval process as a "book burning" that was "100 percent political." Dr. Chiras and his publisher refused to modify their text in response to similar ideological attacks – and suffered the consequences.

On November 9, 2001, the Board voted to reject Dr. Chiras’ book in a 10-5 vote held just one day after public hearings where TPPF and CSE attacked the book as anti-Christian, anti-free enterprise, and anti-American. For example, TPPF charged that Dr. Chiras’ book was not acceptable for classroom use because of its allegedly "heavy bias toward radical politics." Indeed, TPPF’s spokesperson portrayed the text as unpatriotic based on Dr. Chiras’ favorable view of the marketability of solar energy sources. Although the Board did not name any grounds for rejecting Dr. Chiras’ book, individual Board members’ statements show the influence of TPPF and CSE. In short, the Board improperly rejected Dr. Chiras’ book because the author’s viewpoint did not echo their own political and religious views.

"The Board’s decision to choose an environmental science text financed by the mining industry over one written by a scientist that emphasizes the importance of critical-thinking is no accident," said TLPJ Staff Attorney Adele P. Kimmel, co-counsel in the case. "Texas students will be better prepared to compete for jobs and college scholarships when the Board stops trying to force feed public school students with corporate propaganda and extremist ideology."

"I am taking an Advanced Placement course in Environmental Science to prepare for college," said Plaintiff Lillian Pollak, an 18-year-old senior at the Talented and Gifted Magnet High School in Dallas. "But I am learning even more about censorship than science."

In addition to Jensen and Kimmel, the plaintiffs’ legal team includes TLPJ’s Rebecca Epstein and Kate Gordon. The complaint in the case, Chiras v. Miller, is posted on TLPJ’s web site, www.tlpj.org.

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Trial Lawyers for Public Justice is the only national public interest law firm dedicated to using trial lawyers’ skills and resources to advance the public good. Founded in 1982, TLPJ utilizes a nationwide network of more than 3,000 outstanding trial lawyers to pursue precedent-setting and socially significant litigation. It has a wide-ranging litigation docket in the areas of civil rights and liberties, consumer rights, environmental protection, toxic torts, worker safety, and access to the courts. TLPJ is the principal project of The TLPJ Foundation, a not-for-profit membership organization. It has offices in Washington, DC, and Oakland, CA. TLPJ’s State Coordinators for Texas are Virginia Adams, tel. 214-521-3605, and Scott Hendler, tel. 512-473-3672.

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