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FL AG’s Legal Brief Claims Libraries Should Only Convey “Government’s Message”

"Florida’s public-school libraries are a forum for government, not private, speech," Florida AG Ashley Moody claimed.

The state of Florida has submitted an amicus brief in a federal lawsuit regarding a school district’s library book bans, alleging that libraries exist only to promote local and state governments’ interests — a claim that has been roundly condemned by librarians.

This past summer, speech rights group PEN America, publisher Penguin Random House and a group of authors jointly filed a lawsuit against Escambia County School District, alleging that the banning of around 10 books in school libraries violated the civil rights of students, barring their “access to books on a wide range of topics and that express a diversity of viewpoints.” The books, centering on themes of race and/or LGBTQ identity, were banned after complaints from just one parent.

“The targeted book removals we are seeing in Escambia County are blatantly unconstitutional attempts to silence and stigmatize. The government should not foster censorship by proxy, allowing one person to decide what ideas are out of bounds for all,” Nadine Farid Johnson, managing director of PEN America Washington and Free Expression Programs, said at the time.

Although there is no state official listed as a defendant in the lawsuit, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody filed an amicus brief asserting that the state has a “substantial interest” in the outcome of the case.

Moody’s brief claims that both state and local governments have the “authority” to determine “what materials to curate” in public school libraries, and seeks a complete dismissal of the lawsuit.

“Florida’s public-school libraries are a forum for government, not private, speech,” Moody says, adding that public school libraries are meant to “convey the government’s message.”

Moody’s brief further claims that “the government has no constitutional obligation to present educational material with which it disagrees.”

Free speech and library advocates contested that notion, noting that it violates long-respected standards regarding libraries.

If recognized and allowed to stand by a federal court, Moody’s assertions “would upend 100 years of established First Amendment precedent,” said Peter Bromberg, associate director of EveryLibrary. “This is such a far departure [from precedent] and would have such a ripple effect.”

Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, also condemned the assertions listed in Moody’s brief, telling the Tallahassee Democrat that the state’s position on book bans was hypocritical.

“There’s considerable irony in that those who seek to limit access to books in school libraries often say they’re fighting for parental rights,” Paulson said. “If government speech determines what books can be in the library, the government is essentially saying your children can only see the ideas that the government has approved. That’s not parental rights. That’s authoritarianism.”

The Florida Freedom to Read Project, a pro-library and anti-book banning organization, responded to the state’s legal position with sarcasm.

“Quite an argument for the ‘free’ state to make in court,” the group said on social media, referring to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s dubious claim last year that Florida was becoming the “freest” state in the U.S. under his watch.

Travis Akers, a public education advocate in Florida, also blasted Moody’s brief.

“This is pure fascism,” Akers said. “There is no other way to describe the actions of Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Attorney General, who argued that public libraries are a forum for government messaging and not a place for free expression.”

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