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‘And Tango Makes Three’ penguin picture book authors sue Florida over ban under ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

School district restricts access to a picture book about the true story of a penguin family with two fathers

Alex Woodward
Tuesday 20 June 2023 20:44 BST
Related video: Biden condemns ‘ugly’ and ‘hysterical’ threats to LGBT+ people

A group of Florida students and the authors of an award-winning children’s picture book about the true story of a penguin family with two fathers have argued that a Florida school district unconstitutionally restricted access to the book under what opponents have called the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.

A lawsuit filed in federal court on 20 June argues that the Lake County school district’s decision to pull And Tango Makes Three “cited no legitimate pedagogical reason for its decision” and was restricted only for “illegitimate, narrowly partisan and political reasons.”

Last year, Lake County officials announced that the title was “administratively removed due to content regarding sexual orientation/gender identification” prohibited under the “Parental Rights in Education Act,” what critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

That measure, signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis last year, broadly prohibits “classroom instruction” on issues related to “sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade” or “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards” in other grades.

Mr DeSantis signed a measure this year that explicitly expands the law to cover all school grades.

Opponents have warned its broad scope could effectively block discussion of LGBT+ people, history and events from state schools, and be weaponised against students, staff and their families under threat from potential lawsuits against school districts over perceived violations.

The lawsuit from the book’s authors Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell and the families of several young students argues that such restrictions violate First Amendment protections, including the authors’ right to freedom of expression and students’ rights to receive information.

And Tango Makes Three “tells a true and heartwarming story, and it teaches students about animal behavior, adoption, diversity among family structures, and responsible family values,” the lawsuit states.

“The authors wrote Tango to spread a message of tolerance and equal treatment. They have a sincere and strongly held desire to ensure that Tango is available to children learning about animal behavior, adoption, and family structures, whether similar to or different from their own – and the student plaintiffs wish to read Tango to learn about those very subjects,” the plaintiffs wrote.

The book was listed among free expression group PEN America’s most-banned picture books of the last school year.

Last year, a record high of more than 1,200 attempts to remove books from schools and libraries were reported to the American Library Association.

There were at least 1,477 attempts to ban 874 individual book titles within the first half of the 2022-2023 school year, according to PEN America. The figures mark a nearly 30 per cent spike from book challenges over the previous year.

Book ban attempts have largely targeted books by and about LGBT+ people, titles written by or involving people of colour, or materials featuring honest discussions of race and racism, according to PEN America.

Mr DeSantis and his administration have repeatedly rejected characterising such restrictions as “book bans” and have accused media outlets of manufacturing a “hoax” and a “fake narrative” surrounding them.

The state has been at the centre of book challenges and legal battles over school and library materials as the DeSantis administration implements a sweeping agenda targeting public education and lessons and speech he deems objectionable.

PEN American and Penguin Random House, one of the largest book publishers in the world, and several prominent authors and families have also sued a separate school district and school board in Florida’s Escambia County.

A lawsuit filed in US District Court last month argues that school officials have pursued an “ideologically driven campaign to push certain ideas out of schools” against the recommendation of experts.

“This disregard for professional guidance underscores that the agendas underlying the removals are ideological and political, not pedagogical,” the lawsuit states.

The Independent has requested comment from the state’s Department of Education.

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