Law & Courts

District That Restricted Access to Over 100 Books Sued by Publisher, Free Speech Group

Why PEN America, Penguin Random House sued a Florida school district over restricted library books.
By Eesha Pendharkar — May 17, 2023 6 min read
Jennifer Wilson, a Largo High School English teacher, wears a shirt against banning books at the Pinellas County School Board meeting in Largo, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2023. In Florida, some schools have covered or removed books under a new law that requires an evaluation of reading materials and for districts to publish a searchable list of books where individuals can then challenge specific titles.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

One of the nation’s largest publishers, five authors of banned books, two parents, and a free speech advocacy group say a Florida school district has violated their constitutional rights by restricting students’ access to more than 100 books amid a nationwide movement to ban books.

The coalition—which includes Penguin Random House and the free speech advocacy group PEN America—on Wednesday sued the Escambia County Public Schools and its school board in federal court. It is the first suit of its kind that PEN America—which tracks book bans nationwide—has filed against a school district.

It’s also the first one bringing together authors, a publisher, and parents against a district, according to Nadine F. Johnson, counsel and managing director of PEN America Washington and Free Expression Programs.

Since last summer, Escambia County Public Schools have restricted 139 books and removed 15, according to PEN’s records.

Book bans are escalating across the country over the past two years, with more than 4,000 book challenges and bans since June 2021, according to PEN America’s nationwide tracking. A lot of these bans target books about LGBTQ+ identities, books containing some sexual content, or race and racism.

This pattern has also held true in Escambia, according to the lawsuit.

“This is something that’s happening in more than 30 states in the country, but Florida really has been the epicenter of much of this,” Johnson said.

“The movement really has taken hold there and spread across the state, and Escambia really is the beating heart of all that.”

The district declined a request for an interview because it can’t comment on pending legislation, according to Cody Strother, Escambia’s coordinator for marketing and public relations.

Members of the school board also declined to comment due to pending litigation.

Plaintiffs allege First and 14th Amendment violations

The plaintiffs allege that the district and school board have removed books because they disagree with the ideas expressed in them, have ignored their book review policies, and have sided with the book challengers, even if they expressed openly discriminatory reasons for the challenges, the lawsuit says. The removals have therefore impacted books about LGBTQ+ people and books about minorities disproportionately.

According to the lawsuit, of the 154 removed or restricted books, 37 percent have authors who are non-white, or identify as LGBTQ+. Approximately 60 percent of the restricted titles address themes relating to race or LGBTQ+ identity, or feature important non-white and/or LGBTQ+ characters.

PEN America, the authors, and the publisher are suing the district for allegedly violating the First Amendment by engaging in viewpoint discrimination, and the parents claim their children’s right to receive information under the First Amendment is being violated. All of the plaintiffs also claim that the district is violating the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

“I think it’s really important that we have brought this action and that we are seeking to have these rights upheld, and I do think it can send a message to other districts that are considering or are continuing to ban books,” Johnson from PEN America said.

Penguin Random House is suing because the book bans restrict its ability to freely publish and sell books, according to the lawsuit.

“Books have the capacity to change lives for the better, and students in particular deserve equitable access to a wide range of perspectives. Censorship, in the form of book bans like those enacted by Escambia County, are a direct threat to democracy and our Constitutional rights,” said Nihar Malaviya, CEO of Penguin Random House, in a statement. “We stand by our authors, their books, and the teachers, librarians, and parents who champion free expression.”

The plaintiffs are asking for all removed and restricted books to be made accessible to all students.

I do think it can send a message to other districts that are considering or are continuing to ban books.

Escambia’s book bans started with a teacher challenging more than 100 titles

In May 2022, Vicki Baggett, a language arts teacher at Escambia County’s Northview High School started challenging books, first taking issue with The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, according to the lawsuit.

She ultimately identified 116 titles, many of which have been the subject of book challenges and bans across the nation. Some of the books she objected to were written by the authors suing the district, including Ashley Hope Pérez, who wrote Out of Darkness. The book features a teenage love story between a Mexican-American girl and an African-American boy in 1930s New London, Texas, leading up to the deadly New London School explosion of 1937, when a natural gas leak caused an explosion that destroyed the school, killing 300 students and teachers.

Baggett objected to the book for “graphic depictions of abuse [and] sexual scenes,” she listed the strengths of the book as “none,” and listed its purpose as “sexual introductions; sexually excite,” according to the lawsuit.

Books such as Out of Darkness and others that have been removed in Escambia are important resources for young people to learn about their world and empathize with others, Pérez told EdWeek.

Baggett also objected to a picture book for elementary school readers about two male penguins who adopt a baby penguin called And Tango Makes Three for “serving an LGBTQ agenda using penguins,” according to the lawsuit.

She has challenged other books for containing LGBTQ+ content, or containing “race-baiting,” reflecting “anti-whiteness,” and promoting a “woke agenda,” according to the lawsuit.

To date, the school board has rejected none of Baggett’s challenges, the lawsuit says.

Baggett did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.

While the district’s review committee, made up of teachers and parents, which is meant to examine each challenged book, is still intact, according to PEN America, the school board has ignored its recommendations and removed 10 books in four waves, according to the Pensacola News Journal.

(The other five books were removed after the committee deemed them inappropriate, the lawsuit says.)

“I would say it’s really striking and concerning to see the school board repeatedly disregard the district review committee and the recommendations of educators, with the exception of this teacher who has been the source of these challenges,” Pérez said.

“To ignore their guidance is especially egregious, and I think that that’s one of the reasons why this effort starts here, is because we can see a clear pattern of the district targeting books for ideological reasons, and even when their own committee has affirmed the value and appropriateness of the text, removing them anyway.”

Books that are challenged based on Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law—which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law—are restricted in elementary schools, said Michelle White, the district’s coordinator of media services, and parents can grant permission for their child to check out these specific titles.

However, that law as it stood at the time did not apply to library materials. It only restricted classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary schools. (The law was expanded last month to all grades.)

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2023 edition of Education Week as District That Restricted Access to Over 100 Books Sued by Publisher, Free Speech Group

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Supreme Court Turns Down Case Challenging School District's Transgender Policies
The case involves a policy allowing information to be withheld from parents considered not supportive of a gender-transitioning child.
3 min read
This Oct. 4, 2018, photo shows the U.S. Supreme Court at sunset in Washington. The Supreme Court has declined to take up an appeal from parents in Oregon who want to prevent transgender students from using locker rooms and bathrooms of the gender with which they identify, rather than their sex assigned at birth.
This Oct. 4, 2018, photo shows the U.S. Supreme Court at sunset in Washington. The court has declined to take up an appeal from parents in Maryland challenging a school district's policy on gender-support plans for students.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Law & Courts District Can Deny Opt-Outs on LGBTQ+ Books, Court Rules
Religious parents objected to a Maryland district's policy ending opt-outs for elementary school 'storybooks' with LGBTQ+ themes.
5 min read
A pedestrian passes by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Courthouse, June 16, 2021, on Main Street in Richmond, Va.
A person walks near the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit's courthouse in Richmond, Va. A panel of the court denied an injunction seeking to restore religious parents' opportunity to opt their children out of LGBTQ+ "storybooks" in a Maryland district.
Steve Helber/AP
Law & Courts Brown v. Board of Education: 70 Years of Progress and Challenges
The milestone for the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down racial segregation in schools is marked by a range of tributes
12 min read
People mill around the third floor of the Kansas Statehouse in front of a Brown v. Board of Education mural before hearing from speakers recognizing the 70th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case on April 29, 2024 in Topeka, Kan.
People mill around the third floor of the Kansas Statehouse in front of a Brown v. Board of Education mural before hearing from speakers recognizing the 70th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case on April 29, 2024 in Topeka, Kan.
Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP
Law & Courts Republican-Led States Sue to Block New Title IX Rule
A pair of lawsuits focus on the rule's protections for students' gender identity.
5 min read
Demonstrators advocating for transgender rights and healthcare stand outside of the Ohio Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2024, in Columbus. Four Republican-led states filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the Biden administration's new Title IX regulation, which among other things would codify protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Demonstrators advocating for transgender rights and healthcare stand outside of the Ohio Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2024, in Columbus. Four Republican-led states filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the Biden administration's new Title IX regulation, which among other things would codify protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Patrick Orsagos/AP