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Tuesday, June 11, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Florida school district faces First Amendment challenge to book bans

School officials in Pensacola are accused of targeting books by or about LGBTQ people and people of color.

(CN) — A Florida school district was sued Wednesday by writers' group PEN America, publisher Penguin Random House and several parents over its removal of library books based on political or ideological differences.

The federal lawsuit filed in Pensacola argues the actions of the Escambia County School District violate the First Amendment by suppressing the expression of ideas and because the district's discretion to determine the content of its libraries was exercised in "a narrowly partisan or political manner."

It states that these restrictions and removals have disproportionately targeted books by or about people of color and/or LGBTQ people, and school officials overruled the recommendations of review committees that deemed them suitable.

"This is no accident. The clear agenda behind the campaign to remove the books is to categorically remove all discussion
of racial discrimination or LGBTQ issues from public school libraries," attorney Shalini Goel Agarwal of the Protect Democracy Project wrote in the complaint.

According to the lawsuit, many of the removals were initiated by one language arts teacher in Escambia County who made formal objections to books that were deemed "ideologically unsuitable for children" on a book ban website.

"The Perks of Being a Wallflower," a popular coming-of-age novel, is one example cited in the lawsuit. The teacher admitted she had never heard of or read the book and instead filed her objection based on phrases from the book listed on the website.

Other banned books include “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “The Nowhere Girls” by Amy Reed and “Lucky” by Alice Sebold. More than 150 additional books are said to be under review by the school board.

The lawsuit cites the Supreme Court's 1982 decision in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, which said that public schools can bar books from libraries that are “pervasively vulgar” or not right for the curriculum, but they cannot remove books “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”

Based on this precedent, the challengers present a valid argument that could likely succeed, according to Clare Norins, assistant clinical professor and director of the First Amendment Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law.

"Public schools have less discretion to censor materials in their school libraries, where exposure to the materials is voluntary on the part of the student, than they do to censor curriculum materials," said Norins.

"There is a strong argument that this violates the First Amendment rights of the students, represented by their parents in the lawsuit, who would like to have the option to access those books and the ideas they contain," she added.

PEN America says the district's actions are part of a national book-removal movement. Between July 2021 and June 2022, the nonprofit found 2,532 instances of individual books being banned across the nation, with a majority of them addressing LGBTQ+ themes or characters or prominent characters of color. Many of the bans were in Florida.

"The free exploration of books of students’ choosing in libraries shapes their relationship to reading and to books as a meaningful part of their lives," the complaint states. "Accordingly, for authors and publishers, access to such libraries is a vital means for disseminating ideas, and for reaching, and engaging with, the audiences for whom the works are intended. This is especially so with respect to those students who lack easy access to books and learning material outside of school."

Escambia County school officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The suit is the latest challenge to a series of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and policy actions that impose restrictions on Florida's schools by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis he prepares to seek the Republican 2024 presidential nomination. These actions include what he branded the “Stop WOKE Act," which prohibits instruction on certain race-related concepts, his rejection of the College Board’s Advanced Placement course in African-American Studies, and legislation referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law that bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Also on Wednesday, DeSantis signed bills in front of an audience at the evangelical Cambridge Christian School in Tampa that restrict the discussion of “preferred pronouns” in schools and force people to use certain bathrooms.

"Florida is where the First Amendment goes to die," said Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

"In the past few years, the Sunshine State has been the site of one attack on the First Amendment after another," Terr said. "It’s hardly the only place in America where free speech is in jeopardy, to be fair. But Florida is at the vanguard of efforts nationwide to suppress speech and enforce ideological conformity."

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Categories / Civil Rights, Education, Government, Politics, Regional

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