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 challengesand 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 expandedlast 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