PEN America, a writers’ group championing freedom of expression, and publisher Penguin Random House have sued a school district in Florida over book bans, with the targeted books largely addressing racial and LGBTQ+ issues.
The suit against the Escambia County School District and its board was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. It says the bans violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
“The School District and the School Board are depriving students of access to a wide range of viewpoints, and depriving the authors of the removed and restricted books of the opportunity to engage with readers and disseminate their ideas to their intended audiences,” it says. “Such viewpoint discrimination violates the First Amendment.”
“The actions of the School District and School Board also violate the Equal Protection Clause because the books being singled out for possible removal are disproportionately books by non-white and/or LGBTQ authors, or which address topics related to race or LGBTQ identity,” the lawsuit continues. “This is no accident. The clear agenda behind the campaign to remove the books is to categorically remove all discussion of racial discrimination or LGBTQ issues from public school libraries. Government action may not be premised on such discriminatory motivations.”
Allowing such action could lead to the removal of “books about Christianity, the country’s founders, or war heroes,” the suit says. “All of these removals run afoul of the First Amendment, which is rightly disinterested in the cause du jour.”
Joining in the suit are five authors whose books have either been removed from school libraries or subjected to restricted access, plus two parents of students in the district. The authors and their challenged books are Sarah Brannen, whose Uncle Bobby’s Wedding depicts a same-sex marriage; George Johnson, who is Black and nonbinary and wrote the memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue, about growing up Black and queer; David Levithan, a gay man who wrote the young adult book Two Boys Kissing;transgender man Kyle Lukoff, whose books When Aidan Became a Brother and Too Bright to See have trans protagonists; and Ashley Hope Pérez, whose challenged book is Out of Darkness, about racial issues.
Other books that have been removed or restricted include And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins raising a chick; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and Push by Sapphire, both of which portray the struggles of young Black girls in an abusive homes; and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, which has a gay protagonist.
Vicki Baggett, a language arts teacher at a high school in the district, began challenging books with an objection to The Perks of Being a Wallflower. “Baggett would later admit that she had not heard of Wallflower prior to her efforts to prevent it from being read in the School District, making clear that the book came to her attention because it was one of the books frequently targeted as part of the nationwide book-removal movement,” the suit says. Much of the language she used in her challenges to this and other books was drawn from a right-wing website called Book Looks, even including typos, according to the suit.
The suit is being seen as a rebuke to the policies of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is likely to seek the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. He isn’t named as a defendant in the suit, but he “has championed policies that allow the censorship and challenging of books based on whether they are appropriate for children in schools, causing national uproar,” the Associated Press notes.
His actions have included signing several anti-LGBTQ+ bills into law. On Wednesday, he OK’d an expansion of the state’s infamous “don’t say gay” law, restricting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Escambia County is “a vivid example of the troubling pattern that we see across the country,” Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, told The Washington Post, adding, “The rights that are at stake are interlocking: It’s children’s rights to read, parents’ right to make books accessible to their kids, authors’ rights to reach an audience, publishers’ rights to distribute their books.”
It's important to maintain access to books in school libraries, she said. “Their families may not have the resources to go out to a bookstore or be ordering from Amazon,” she pointed out “There are also kids for whom certain books might not be the parents’ choice but might be something that a child wants to explore, and school has always been a place for that.”
Johnson also spoke to the Post. “Anyone who thought that this would just be something that we would not fight against — I hope that this is a message to them that if this is the fight they want, then we are ready and prepared to go the distance with them,” Johnson said. All Boys Aren’t Blue is one of the most frequently challenged books across the U.S.
The controversy in Escambia County has cost Superintendent Tim Smith his job. The school board voted Tuesday night to fire him, effective May 31. Smith had faced numerous complaints, but one of them was that he “declined to unilaterally remove challenged books,” the Post reports. The books were instead reviewed by a committee.
Various media outlets asked school district officials for comment on the lawsuit, but these officials said they couldn’t address pending litigation.