Penguin Random House, advocacy group PEN America, five authors, and two parents sued the Escambia County School District and the Escambia County School Board in Pensacola, Florida on Wednesday over the district’s book bans.
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, accuses the school district and school board of removing and restricting access to books in public school libraries “based on their disagreement with the ideas expressed in those books.” It alleges that the school board has ignored and overruled recommendations from school and district review committees and the resulting book bans have disproportionately affected books authored by people of color and LGBTQ people.
The suit asserts that the way in which the school district and school board are restricting and removing books violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
In support of their First Amendment argument, the plaintiffs quote the U.S. Supreme Court case Board of Education v. Pico, stating that while schools may exercise discretion when curating their libraries, “discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner.” They assert that the fact that the school board has removed books against the recommendations of the review committees is evidence that the removals are ideological and political. Thus, they say, the school district and school board are engaging in viewpoint discrimination by preventing students from accessing a range of viewpoints and preventing authors from engaging with readers.
In support of their Fourteenth Amendment argument, the plaintiffs state that the books being restricted or removed are disproportionately books authored by non-white and LGBTQ people that address subjects related to race and LGBTQ identity, therefore violating the Equal Protection Clause.
Among the plaintiffs in the case is author George M. Johnson, whose book All Boys Aren’t Blue, a “memoir of growing up Black and gay,” was removed from all of the district’s libraries on February 21, 2023. This was in spite of the fact, the complaint claims, that the district review committee voted unanimously in favor of keeping the book in high school libraries.
In a similar instance, plaintiff author Kyle Lukoff’s book When Aidan Became a Brother was removed by the school board on February 20, 2023 even though, as the complaint alleges, the district review committee recommended 4-1 that the book be kept in all libraries at all levels.
Three other plaintiff authors have books that are currently restricted in the district subject to review, though no schedule has been set, according to the complaint.
Escambia County School District is made up of 32 elementary schools, nine middle schools, seven high schools, and several alternative and technical programs.
According to the complaint, the push to ban books in the school district began when a language arts teacher proposed that The Perks of Being a Wallflower be removed in May 2022. The complaint asserts the teacher later admitted she had not heard of the book before she proposed the ban and had cited research from PEN America about the book being one of the most removed books in the country to justify her proposal.
While the review process for The Perks of Being a Wallflower was underway, the teacher prepared a list of 116 books she thought should be “evaluated based on explicit sexual content, graphic language, themes, vulgarity and political pushes,” according to the complaint.
The school board ultimately overruled the district review committee’s determination that The Perks of Being a Wallflower was appropriate for high school seniors. The complaint states that around the same time, the school board chair was quoted as saying that he was largely deferring to the teacher’s assessment of the books. The complaint asserts that the teacher’s proposals were “blatantly political and message-based objections” with no other basis.
The complaint states that the district restricts access to any book challenged based on alleged sexual content or references to same-sex relationships or transgender people, effectively “giving private citizens the unilateral right to restrict student access to books to which they object.”
PEN America, Penguin Random House sue Florida school district over book bans, AP News (May 17, 2023)
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