Free Speech

Recollections of Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District

03.01.10

By Michael T. Honohan,
volunteer attorney

In 1972, the Strongsville Board of Education rejected three books which had been selected by the English Department for the school curriculum. They were: Catch 22, by Joseph Heller, and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater and Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. In addition, the School Board ordered that Catch 22 and Cat’s Cradle be removed from the shelves of the school library. There was an immediate and vociferous, albeit mixed reaction in the community.

Read more about Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District

The ACLU of Ohio filed a 1983 action on behalf of five students in the federal district court. The action challenged, as unconstitutional, both the rejection of the books from the school curriculum and the removal of the books from the library. Judge Robert Krupansky was assigned to the case. At this point I was asked to act as lead counsel. Howard Besser, another volunteer lawyer for the ACLU of Ohio, was second chair.

The case got more media attention than it might normally have, because Kurt Vonnegut agreed to appear personally and testify in support of his books. (He was also a guest in my home for dinner.) Nevertheless, as we had anticipated, we lost on both issues in the district court.

On appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, we won an important victory. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the rejection of the books from the curriculum, but reversed the School Board’s removal of the books from the library shelves. In rejecting the books, “Dr.” Cain (as he referred to himself), filed a report, which the Court quoted: “Recommended that God Bless You Mr. Rosewater not be purchased… The book is completely sick. One secretary read it for a one-half hour and handed it back to the reviewer with the written comment ‘Garbage.’” It gives you a flavor of the quality of literary evaluation which went into the school board decision. I believe the court decision was one of the first, if not the first, upholding the First Amendment right to have school books in the library protected from arbitrary censorship.

I still look back on that evening when Kurt Vonnegut came to our home for dinner. I can’t remember all that was discussed. He did talk about Joseph Heller, whom he evidently knew personally. He also signed a copy of his book Breakfast of Champions for me. As a “volunteer” attorney, I felt more than well paid for my efforts.

Minarcini et al. v. Strongsville City S.D., 541 f.2D 577 (6TH Cir. 1976)