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Groups and Parents File Lawsuit Against Florida District for Banning Books

The banning of books by the school district violates parents’ and authors’ First Amendment rights, the lawsuit contends.

A student holds a placard at a "Walkout 2 Learn" rally to protest Florida education policies on April 21, 2023 in Orlando, Florida.

PEN America, an organization that seeks to protect free expression, and book publisher Penguin Random House are suing a Florida school district over its banning of several book titles, alleging the district did so for political rather than practical purposes.

The lawsuit also lists the authors of the books that have been banned in the Escambia County School District as co-litigants, as well as parents of children who attend schools there who say the book bans are unfair to their kids.

The removal of the books, which include 10 titles that center around racial and/or LGBTQ identities, is a violation of the litigants’ First Amendment rights, the lawsuit claims.

“Books have the capacity to change lives for the better, and students in particular deserve equitable access to a wide range of perspectives,” said Nihar Malaviya, CEO of Penguin Random House. “Censorship, in the form of book bans like those enacted by Escambia County, are a direct threat to democracy and our constitutional rights.”

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

The lawsuit notes that books were banned after just one person complained about them in the county. The board decided to act upon that complaint, banning the books in spite of a district review committee deeming them acceptable for educational use.

Books mentioned in the lawsuit that were banned include “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “Lucky” by Alice Sebold, and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, among others.

The lawsuit also purports that the person filing the complaint was inspired to do so in part by a right-wing website that lists titles like-minded people can target in their own localities for banning, lending credence to the idea that this was a political decision on the district’s part.

Within the complaint, the litigants cite a 1982 Supreme Court decision, Board of Education v. Pico, which recognized that school administrators “possess significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries,” but that decision-making on what types of content should or should not be included “may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner.”

“That is exactly what is happening in Escambia County,” the lawsuit states. “Books are being ordered removed from libraries, or subject to restricted access within those libraries, based on an ideologically driven campaign to push certain ideas out of schools.”

Although he is not listed as a defendant in the lawsuit, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is largely responsible for the outcome of this and other book bans in the state. DeSantis, along with his GOP legislative allies in Tallahassee, has signed into law a number of bills that create huge impediments for teachers to give lessons on race and racism, as well as LGBTQ topics or people.

Such draconian laws have led to schools and educators taking drastic actions in order to be compliant with them. Teachers in some districts in the state, for example, have had to cover up bookshelves with construction paper, to comply with requirements that books not be offered to children until a designated “media specialist” approves of them.

In another Florida school district, a graphic novel version of the Diary of Anne Frank was banned, purportedly for containing lewd images, in spite of the fact that those images were based on the original text written by Frank herself. Other historical Holocaust-related content has also been removed elsewhere in the state.

A recent review of Social Studies textbooks seeking approval from the Florida Department of Education found that 35 percent of texts were rejected, on the dubious grounds of purportedly containing false material or content that went against state standards. Of the books that were approved, the vast majority of them were forced to edit sections on racial justice in order to be allowed, including the removal of references to the police murder of George Floyd and the Movement for Black Lives.

“One thing is abundantly clear — Governor Ron DeSantis is committed to erasing our history and unraveling our democracy by indoctrinating our children and stripping away our fundamental freedoms,” said NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson, in response to texts being rejected or altered.

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