In response to a troubling wave of book bans, PEN America, Penguin Random House, a group of authors, and a group of parents have filed a federal lawsuit against a Florida school district over the "unconstitutional" removal of books from school libraries.
The suit, filed on May 16 in the Northern district of Florida in Pensacola, alleges that administrators and school board members in Florida’s Escambia County School District are violating the First Amendment as well as the 14th Amendment (the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution) because the books being singled out are "disproportionately books by non-white and/or LGBTQ+ authors" and often address "themes or topics" related to race or LGBTQ+ community.
The suit seeks to have the district's actions declared unconstitutional and to have the banned books returned to library shelves.
"In every decision to remove a book, the School District has sided with a challenger expressing openly discriminatory bases for challenge, overruling the recommendations of review committees at the school and district levels," the complaint alleges. "These restrictions and removals have disproportionately targeted books by or about people of color and/or LGBTQ people, and have prescribed an orthodoxy of opinion that violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.... Today, Escambia County seeks to bar books critics view as too 'woke.' In the 1970s, schools sought to bar Slaughterhouse-Five and books edited by Langston Hughes. Tomorrow, it could be books about Christianity, the country’s founders, or war heroes. All of these removals run afoul of the First Amendment, which is rightly disinterested in the cause du jour."
In a release, PEN officials called the suit a "first-of-its-kind challenge to unlawful censorship," as it brings together concerned parents, authors, and a major publisher.
“In Escambia County, state censors are spiriting books off shelves in a deliberate attempt to silence pluralism and diversity," said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel in a statement. "In a nation built on free speech, this cannot stand. The law demands that the Escambia County School District put removed or restricted books back on library shelves where they belong.” She added that "children in a democracy must not be taught that books are dangerous."
Nihar Malaviya, CEO of Penguin Random House, agreed. "Books have the capacity to change lives for the better, and students in particular deserve equitable access to a wide range of perspectives," Malaviya said in a release announcing the suit. "Censorship, in the form of book bans like those enacted by Escambia County, are a direct threat to democracy and our Constitutional rights. We stand by our authors, their books, and the teachers, librarians, and parents who champion free expression. We are proud to join forces with our longtime partner PEN America.”
The authors involved in the suit include author and children’s book illustrator Sarah Brannen, YA authors David Levithan, George M. Johnson, and Ashley Hope Pérez, and children’s book author Kyle Lukoff.
“Young readers in Escambia schools and across the nation deserve a complete and honest education, one that provides them with full access in libraries to a wide range of literature that reflects varied viewpoints and that explores the diversity of human experiences,” said Pérez, author of Out of Darkness, one of the books targeted for removal by the school district. “As a former public high school English teacher, I know firsthand how important libraries are. For many young people, if a book isn’t in their school library, it might as well not exist.”
The lawsuit is a major, and long-awaited, response to a disturbing, politically-motivated surge in book bans and legislation now in its third year. And the facts laid out in the 58-page complaint show what's happening in Escambia County as well as the playbook being run in many communities across the nation.
The complaint lays out how a single language arts teacher at a local high school, Vicki Baggett, kicked off what would become “a widespread—and largely successful—campaign to restrict access to books” throughout the Escambia County School District. The well-written document details how Baggett started by filling out a book challenge form for Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which, the complaint alleges, Baggett would later admit that she had not even heard of prior to her efforts to ban it. Instead, the book came to her attention “because it was one of the books frequently targeted as part of the nationwide book-removal movement.”
After a panel voted to keep the book in the library, Baggett appealed with a letter to the School District’s Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, and copying, among others, governor Ron DeSantis. In the letter, she argued that the book and others were the kind of “pornographic material” barred by state law. In a subsequent letter, the complaint alleges, Baggett “explicitly linked her effort to get Chbosky's book removed to "the national removal efforts underway” and cited a “parental book rating” from the right wing site Book Looks as evidence the book was not suitable for minors. Book Looks, the suit notes, was “founded by a member of, and uses the same rating criteria as, the Moms for Liberty,” one of the right-wing national political groups fueling the current surge in book bans.
From there, Baggett’s effort sprawled. She produced “several lists of books containing what she considered objectionable content,” with the lists, lawyers say, drawing “heavily from materials that are part of the national book-removal movement.”
The complaint alleges there have since been “four waves of book removals by the School Board,” with 197 books targeted for removal, of which “at least 42% have authors who are non-white and/or identify as LGBTQ, while approximately 59% address themes relating to race or LGBTQ identity.” In addition, the complaint notes that books that “reference same-sex relationships or transgender people” are being “automatically placed under restriction” during their review period.
“The disproportionate focus of the removal efforts is not an accident,” the complaint states. “Baggett has routinely expressed the categorical view that a book is inappropriate for inclusion in a school library just on the ground that it explores themes relating to race or LGBTQ identity. And, the School Board has repeatedly ratified—over the objections of the district review committee—Baggett’s removal preferences.”
It's a familiar story, PEN officials note. In April, a new PEN America report titled Banned in the USA: State Laws Supercharge Book Suppression in Schools, expanded on two previous PEN America reports tracking the intensifying wave of book bans and laws aimed at limiting access to school and library books. Since July 2021, when PEN America began tracking public school book bans, the organization recorded more than 4,000 bans books through December 2022, including 1,477 individual book bans affecting 874 unique titles during the first half of the 2022-23 school year—a 28% increase over the previous six months.
And in March, the American Library Association also reported a shocking surge in book bans, announcing that it had tracked a stunning 1,269 "demands to censor library books and resources" in 2022, the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago, and nearly double the record-shattering 729 challenges recorded in 2021. Once again, the vast majority of works challenged were written by or about members of the LGBTQ community and people of color.
The suit comes as another group, in Texas, recently won an injunction to stop book bans and to reinstate banned titles at their local public library. On March 30, federal judge Robert Pitman found that the library board in Llano County infringed the constitutional rights of library users by unilaterally removing books it deemed inappropriate. In a 26-page decision, Pitman affirmed that "the First Amendment prohibits the removal of books from libraries based on either viewpoint or content discrimination,” said that the facts clearly showed that county officials had illegally "targeted and removed books” based on complaints that the books were offensive.
Pitman's preliminary injunction ordered county officials not to remove any books from library shelves while the litigation is ongoing, as well as to return to the library of more than a dozen books he concluded were “removed because of their viewpoint or content.”
The plaintiffs in Florida are hoping for a similar victory.
“Without diverse representation in literature and inclusive dialogue in the classroom, we are doing irreparable harm to the voices and safety of students in Florida,” said Lindsay Durtschi, an Escambia County parent and plaintiff. “Our children need the adults in their lives to stand up for the promise of cooperation and equity.”