(PENSACOLA, FL)— Five additional parents today joined a first-of-its-kind federal lawsuit filed earlier this spring challenging the removals and restrictions of books from libraries in a Florida school district that violate their rights to free speech and equal protection under the law.

The amended suit, led by the free expression organization PEN America, Penguin Random House and a diverse group of authors and parents of Escambia County students, seeks to ensure access to books on a wide range of topics with a wide range of viewpoints. The plaintiffs are represented by Ballard Spahr LLP and Protect Democracy, a non-partisan, pro-democracy group. Read the amended complaint, filed today, here.

This brings the number of parent plaintiffs in the case to seven, with 10 children from diverse backgrounds in elementary, middle and high school. The suit was filed originally on May 17 against the Escambia County School Board asking for books to be returned to school library shelves where they belong. After the complaint was filed, the plaintiffs were granted time to amend it with additional plaintiffs.

“As a Black mother of two teenage girls, I know how important it is for our children to have access to books like The Freedom Writers Diary and Beloved,” said Carin Smith, a parent who joined  the lawsuit. “I respect the right of parents to make decisions with and for their own children. In my opinion, we should not shy away from the real, raw struggles this country has faced, and my girls shouldn’t be deprived access to books on those issues because our stories make someone else uncomfortable.”

Benjamin Glass, another parent joining the suit, noted, “Someone with a master’s degree in library science, also known as a librarian, should be deciding what’s in libraries – not politicians. Parents, of course, should be involved in what is in their own child’s best interest to read. But they shouldn’t be making decisions on behalf of other people’s children. You parent your child, I’ll parent mine, and we’ll let librarians do their jobs. That sounds good to me.”

Since the lawsuit was filed in May, the Escambia School District has continued its policies of removing books from school libraries. In that time an additional 21 book titles have been challenged and 17 have been restricted, including Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, the landmark graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore, and the horror novel It by Stephen King.

“School officials shouldn’t use their authority to force their own ideological convictions on students,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. “The new plaintiffs have kids in middle and high schools, going through a pivotal time of learning, exploration and intellectual development. We should not be sending them the message that books are dangerous. By defending their freedom to read, we will ensure that schools remain places where students are exposed to complex ideas and stories instead of being taught that society does not trust them enough to allow them to pick up a book.”

The authors involved in the suit, all of whom have either already had their books removed by the district and/or restricted from student access, include author and children’s book illustrator Sarah Brannen, young adult fiction authors David Levithan, George M. Johnson and Ashley Hope Pérez, and children’s book author Kyle Lukoff, all of whom have published works focusing on identities that are historically underrepresented in school libraries.

Lynn Oberlander, counsel at Ballard Spahr LLP, noted, “In removing and restricting access to over 150 books from the libraries on the basis that they expressed disfavored viewpoints, the school board in Escambia County violated the constitutional rights of students, parents, authors and publishers. We are pursuing this case to vindicate those rights, and to stop agents of government from limiting access to ideas and perspectives with which it disagrees in our nation’s schools.”

“The school board is removing books from the school library based on the political views of a small minority,” said Shalini Agarwal, counsel for Protect Democracy. “In removing and restricting the books, the school board is overriding the recommendations of district review committees designed to evaluate books with parent and community feedback. This isn’t simply an affront to parents, it’s a violation of the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org 

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057