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Textbook suit A chilling situation Austin State textbook hearings traditionally have inspired an excess of tub thumping and tail twisting. Looking back to Observer stories from 1962, an infamous year in Texas’ history of book censorship, one finds textbooks criticized for being “full of Catholic propaganda,” for speaking favorably of Roosevelt’s New Deal, for “deliberately championing the sd-called downtrodden,” and for mentioning evolution. At a hearing in Abilene in 1962, one woman rammed an American flag onto the podium before she sent out the call for “more triumphant heroism” in public school books. The hearings concerning textbooks have not been among Texas’ finest hours, but it has generally been assumed that citizens have a right to voice their objections to the books proposed for use in the public schools. A textbook company is now challenging that right. On Nov. 19, the Economy Co. of Oklahoma City, Atlanta, and Indianapolis filed a $30 million libel and slander suit against three women who spoke out against the company’s readers for seventh and eighth grade English. The company accuses the women of conspiring to get Economy’s textbooks stricken from the State. Board of Education’s list of approved texts. THE DEFENDANTS are Mrs. Billy C. Hutcheson of Fort Worth, who told the State Textbook Committee she considers herself “a professional mother”; Mrs. R. C. Bearden, Jr., of San Angelo, who spoke on behalf of the ultraconservative Daughters of the American Revolution; and Linda Eichblatt of Clear Lake City, who was one among 150 feminists who reviewed this year’s books on behalf of the Continuing Task Force on Education for Women. Ms. Eichblatt, who had the misfortune of drawing the Economy books to critique, said she is not acquainted with the other two women. Companies wanting to sell textbooks to Texas schools must first submit them to the State Textbook Committee, a group of 15 educators appointed annually by the governor. They choose books on a ballot system. Economy’s seventh and eighth grade readers, a series of three paperbacks for each grade, were approved by the committee on the first ballot. The seventh grade series got 13 votes and the eighth grade books got 14 votes. “No other publication received a greater number of affirmative votes on the first ballot,” according to the company’s petition, filed in the 126th state district court in Austin. After the committee makes its selections, the list of recommended books goes to the commissioner of the Texas texts at will. The commissioner approved the Economy series and included them in the list of recommended books he sent on to the State Board of Education. Then the board struck Economy’s books from the list. This action, the petition alleges, was “the result of the defendants’ false and defamatory statements made directly to board members and pressure of public opinion generated by widespread slander and libel of plaintiff and its publicizing, which defendants at every conceivable opportunity foisted upon the news media.” TEA policy states that textbooks shall “present varying .lifestyles, shall treat divergent groups fairly, without inaccurate stereotyping, and shall reflect the positive contributions of all individuals and groups to the American way of life. Illustrative and written material,” the guidelines say, “should avoid bias toward any particular lifestyle, group, or individual. Particular care should be taken in the treatment of ethnic groups, roles of men and women, the dignity of workers, and respect for all productive work.” Economy apparently tried to follow these guidelines. The readers contain selections from writers this reporter remembers from junior high books in the Fifties Pearl S. Buck, Edgar A. Poe, William Saroyan, and John Steinbeck. But there are some surprises, like Dick Gregory, Margaret Mead, and Ray Bradbury. There are stories about ghetto life, about astrology and witchcraft, about Attica and Indians and chicanos. THE TEXTBOOK company charges that the “defendants had no regard for the [TEA’s] stated objectives and, to the contrary, demonstrated their own racism, bigotry, sexism, prejudice, and provincialism by attacking specifically and directly. selections both by and about members of racial minority groups.” Mrs. Hutcheson, according to the complaint, particularly objected to a story that had some bad guys in it. She is quoted as telling the board, “These crimes have been paraded before the minds of these children in the. Economy series theft, criminal mischief, unauthorized use of a vehicle, criminal homicide, bribery, terrorist techniques, cruelty to animals, prostitution, aggravated robbery and so on. These books,” Mrs. Hutcheson said, “should be titled ‘The How to Do It Series.'” Ms. Eichblatt, according to the Economy petition, called the books “heavily sexist” and “offensive.” “Textbooks,” she is quoted as saying, “serve the function of limiting ambitions this way. Girls just don’t ever get ambitions when there are no positive models for them in younger years.” Mrs. Bearden of the DAR is quoted as saying, “This series includes sections on witchcraft, astrology, numerology, dishonest cops, the song that is anti-military and anti-religious that, the -TEA did ask that that be deleted and these are Satan’s religions.” She cited “stories that will cause racial tensions, stories that will cause problems for the schools, a story on suicide, a story on the ills of an affluent society which is against the free enterprise system, biased reporting, biased views of the South that was deleted unbalanced reporting, an anti-Christian play. . . .” Mrs. Bearden lamented in a press interview, “To win a political race in Texas, you nearly have to be conservative, so what’s happening to our books as they go left? Last year I asked this board to put one unit of patriotism in each, require one unit of patriotism in each supplementary reader.” And, she told the American-Statesman, “The board can be sued and taken to the Supreme Court for the contents of some of the books they adopted.” Instead, it’s Mrs. Bearden and two others who are being sued for $30 million, no less. There seems to be general agreement in legal circles that some degree of privilege extends to witnesses speaking before a governmental body. David Anderson, a former UPI bureau chief who now teaches law at UT Austin, told the Observer, “In general, appearances of witnesses before governmental bodies are subject to qualified privilege, as long as the witness stays within the parameters of the subject matter of the hearing.” Denial of this privilege would have a chilling effect on a citizen’s right to state a grievance before a public body. No doubt the sued women already feel chilled. Ms. Eichblatt had to borrow money from relatives to retain a lawyer, and the lawyer immediately instructed her to keep her mouth shut on the subject of the suit. The mere filing of a libel suit has the effect of silencing the defendant. And even if the suit never comes to trial, the defendant has been punished by the sum total of the money it costs to prepare a defense. It’s a curious situation. The TEA provides a procedure whereby citizens can December 13, 1974 5