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Penguin Random House sues Florida school district over ‘unconstitutional’ book bans

Federal lawsuit condemns ‘ideologically driven campaign to push certain ideas out of schools’

Alex Woodward
Wednesday 17 May 2023 19:25 BST
Related video: Joe Biden condemns officials ‘trying to score political points’ by banning books

A school district and school board in Florida’s Escambia County were sued in federal court by free expression group PEN America and Penguin Random House, one of the largest book publishers in the world, and several prominent authors and families following dozens of challenges to books and materials discussing race, racism and LGBT+ people.

The lawsuit, filed in US District Court on 17 May, argues that school officials have joined 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.

Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, has ushered through sweeping laws to control public school education and lessons and speech he deems to be objectionable while characterising reporting on the impacts of such policies as a “hoax” and a “fake narrative” manufactured by the press.

In Escambia County alone, nearly 200 books have been challenged, at least 10 books have been removed by the school board, five books were removed by district committees, and 139 books require parental permission, according to PEN America.

Challenging such materials is “depriving students of access to a wide range of viewpoints, and depriving the authors of the removed and restricted books of the opportunity to engage with readers and disseminate their ideas to their intended audiences” in violation of the First Amendment, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also argues that singling out materials by and about nonwhite and LGBT+ people is an intentional violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment

“This is no accident,” according to the lawsuit. “The clear agenda behind the campaign to remove the books is to categorically remove all discussion of racial discrimination or [LGBT+] issues from public school libraries. Government action may not be premised on such discriminatory motivations.”

Two Penguin Random House Titles – Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Push by Sapphire – have been removed. And several other Penguin titles – including Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five – are currently under review.

“Books have the capacity to change lives for the better, and students in particular deserve equitable access to a wide range of perspectives,” Penguin Random House CEO Nihar Malaviya said in a statement. “Censorship, in the form of book bans like those enacted by Escambia County, are a direct threat to democracy and our constitutional rights.”

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, added: “Children in a democracy must not be taught that books are dangerous.”

“In Escambia County, state censors are spiriting books off shelves in a deliberate attempt to suppress diverse voices,” she added. “In a nation built on free speech, this cannot stand. The law demands that the Escambia County School District put removed or restricted books back on library shelves where they belong.”

Titles from authors who joined the suit – including Sarah Brannen, David Levithan, George M Johnson, Ashley Hope Perez and Kyle Lukoff – have either been removed or faced restrictions for students to access them.

“As a former public high school English teacher, I know firsthand how important libraries are,” Ashley Hope Perez, author of Out of Darkness, one of the books targeted by the school district, said in a statement. “For many young people, if a book isn’t in their school library, it might as well not exist.”

The book removals followed objections from one language arts teacher in the county, and in each case the school board voted to remove the books despite recommendations from a district review committee that approved them.

The teacher’s objections appear to be lifted from a website called Book Looks, founded by a member of Moms for Liberty, a right-wing group aligned with Governor DeSantis, to pressure school boards and libraries to remove content it deems objectionable, largely around LGBT+ rights, race and discrimination.

The basis for that teacher’s challenges “are nakedly ideological”, according to the lawsuit.

In one instance, she admitted that she had never heard of the book The Perks of Being a Wallflower but included the title and a “parental book rating” and excerpts that appear to have been lifted from Book Looks.

Her challenge to Race and Policing in Modern America, a nonfiction book for middle school readers, claims that the book promotes “the idea that all police are bad” and that “non-blacks are racist” and its purpose is to “race bait”.

She did not include any specific examples of objectionable content, and “her sole objection was that the book addresses a topic – the intersection of race and policing – that she did not consider suitable for discussion in schools,” according to the lawsuit.

The Independent has requested comment from Escambia County school board members. The district is unable to comment on pending litigation.

There have been 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.

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.

More than 100 bills in state legislatures across the country this year threaten to cut library budgets, implement book rating systems, regulate the kinds of books and materials in their collections, and amend obscenity definitions that preempt First Amendment protections, according to a database from EveryLibrary.

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