A Florida district’s book bans are being called “unconstitutional” in a federal lawsuit filed this week by a leading free speech organization, the country’s largest publishing firm, several of the books’ authors, and parents of students.
Anti-censorship nonprofit PEN America and Penguin Random House have sued the Escambia County School District and its school board for removing LGBTQ-themed books from school libraries earlier this year. The lawsuit accuses the Florida Panhandle district of trying “to exclude certain ideas from their school libraries by removing or restricting books, some of which have been on the shelves for years—even decades.”
In a development that may or may not be related, the district fired its superintendent, Tim Smith, Tuesday night, the Pensacola News Journal reported.
“Books have the capacity to change lives for the better, and students, in particular, deserve equitable access to a wide range of perspectives,” Nihar Malaviya, CEO of Penguin Random House, said in a statement. “Censorship, in the form of book bans like those enacted by Escambia County, is a direct threat to democracy and our constitutional rights.”
Escambia School District Communication Coordinator Cody Strother told the Tallahassee Democrat that he was “unable to make comment on potential pending litigation.”
The Escambia County School Board called an emergency meeting in February to order the removal from district libraries of three LGBTQ-themed books: When Aidan Became a Brother, All Boys Aren’t Blue and And Tango Makes Three. The first title is about a transgender boy who becomes a big brother while the second is a memoir about growing up a queer Black man in New Jersey. The last book is about two male penguins who raise a chick.
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Prior to voting on the bans, school board member Kevin Adams noted that students could still check the books out of the public library. But dissenting board member Patricia Hightower rejected claims that such books could indoctrinate children or steer them toward an LGBTQ+ lifestyle. “Reading books opens your mind but it doesn’t change who are you or what you are,” Hightower said. “It makes you a more compassionate, caring person.”
The bans are a violation of both the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution because the books that were removed are by non-white and LGBTQ authors, and address themes or topics related to race and identity. The school board also ignored the recommendations of a district committee empaneled to review and evaluate books, the lawsuit claims.
“By ignoring these recommendations, the school district made clear that its interests are in censoring certain ideas and viewpoints, not pedagogy, and that it is willing to allow an extremist minority to substitute its political agenda for the judgment of educators and parents,” the organizations said.
The authors involved in the suit have all had their books removed by the district or restricted from student access. The writers include author and children’s book illustrator Sarah Brannen, young adult fiction authors David Levithan, George M. Johnson and Ashley Hope Pérez, and children’s book author Kyle Lukoff. Other plaintiffs in the suit include Lindsay Durtschi and Ann Novakowski, who are parents of children who attend Escambia County schools.
“Children in a democracy must not be taught that books are dangerous. The freedom to read is guaranteed by the constitution,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. “In Escambia County, state censors are spiriting books off shelves in a deliberate attempt to suppress diverse voices. In a nation built on free speech, this cannot stand.”
More school book bans occurred during the first half of 2022-23 than in the previous two semesters, escalation that anti-censorship groups are now dubbing the “Ed Scare,” PEN America announced earlier this year. That bans are being driven by new laws passed in several states that restrict what can be taught in public schools even though an American Library Association poll found 70% of parents oppose bans.