Oral Arguments Set for 1/10 on Groundbreaking Federal Lawsuit Challenging Book Bans in Florida
PEN America, Penguin Random House, Authors and Parents Argue that Book Bans in Escambia County Violate the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(PENSACOLA, FL) – Students, parents, authors and publishers will make their case against book banning in federal court on Wednesday when they’ll argue that a Florida public school district violated their constitutional rights.
The hearing presents the first opportunity for the federal judge to hear arguments in the lawsuit led by free expression organization PEN America. It is scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m. CT, Jan. 10, at the United States Courthouse in Pensacola, FL, located at One North Palafox St.
PEN America – with Penguin Random House, authors, and parents of Escambia students affected by the book bans – filed the suit in May 2023. The plaintiffs are represented by Ballard Spahr LLP and Protect Democracy, a non-partisan, pro-democracy, nonprofit group. Read the full complaint here.
Wednesday’s hearing will address a motion to dismiss by lawyers for the school district.
The plaintiffs argue that by suppressing access to books about race, racism and LGBTQ identities – against the recommendations of the district review committees charged with evaluating book challenges – local officials violated the First and 14th Amendments. The suit asks the court to uphold the rights of students, parents, authors and publishers by returning these books to school library shelves.
Katie Blankenship, PEN America’s Florida director, said: “School libraries are not state propaganda centers. They are meant to be sites of inquiry, where students can encounter a diverse range of ideas, gain access to information, and inspire discussion, debate, creativity, and critical thinking. We will not stand by as these critical spaces are undermined by political agendas and censorship.”
Lynn Oberlander, chief counsel from Ballard Spahr, said: “As the Supreme Court said in West Virginia State Board of Education versus Barnette, ‘If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.’ But yet that is precisely what the Escambia County School Board is trying to do. They have unconstitutionally removed and restricted books from the school libraries because they do not like the ideas expressed in those books.”
Florida is the epicenter of a national movement to restrict access to books in public schools, with more book bans than any other state. Since the federal lawsuit was filed last spring, the Escambia County school district has restricted access to nearly 1,600 books. The lawsuit covers more than 165 books.
The authors who joined the lawsuit have all had their books removed or restricted by the Escambia County School Board. They include 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.
In addition, seven local parents who together have a total of 10 children across the Escambia County school system are parties to the suit. For some of the students who want access to these books, it’s because they reflect their own experiences; for others, it is to better understand people from other backgrounds.
Shalini Agarwal, counsel for Protect Democracy, said, “Ensuring that students have access to books on a wide range of topics and expressing a diversity of viewpoints is a core function of public education, preparing students to be the thoughtful and engaged citizens our democracy depends upon.”
The books targeted in Escambia County include classic literary works such as The Bluest Eye, Slaughterhouse-Five and The Kite Runner, and run the gamut from picture books to young adult titles.
The unparalleled threats to democracy, free expression, academic freedom and First Amendment liberties in Florida led PEN America this past November to appoint its first statewide Florida director, an effort supported by a group of bestselling authors; many either have ties to the state or their books are banned there.
PEN America has been at the forefront of documenting and defending against the unprecedented rise of school book bans nationwide. Black and LGBTQ authors and books about race, racism, and LGBTQ identities are disproportionately affected by the book bans cataloged by PEN America. The wave of book banning since the fall of 2021 is unprecedented and echoes the McCarthyism and Red Scare of the 1950s. From July 2021 to June 2023, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans recorded 5,894 instances of book bans across 41 states and 247 public school districts.
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. Learn more at pen.org.
About Ballard Spahr
Ballard Spahr LLP is an Am Law 100 law firm with more than 600 lawyers in 15 U.S. offices, serving clients across industry sectors in litigation, transactions, and regulatory compliance. Learn more at ballardspahr.com.
About Protect Democracy
Protect Democracy’s mission is to prevent our democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government. We defend elections, the rule of law, and fact-based political debate against authoritarian threats — regardless of who wins or who is in power — and work to shape a better democracy for future generations. Learn more at protectdemocracy.org.
About Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House, the world’s largest trade book publisher, is dedicated to its mission to ignite a universal passion for reading by creating books for everyone. The company, which employs more than 10,000 people globally, was formed on July 1, 2013, by Bertelsmann and Pearson. As of April 1, 2020, Bertelsmann is full owner of the company. With more than 300 imprints and brands on six continents, Penguin Random House comprises adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction print and digital English- German- and Spanish-language trade book publishing businesses in more than 20 countries worldwide. With over 16,000 new titles, and more than 700 million print, audio and eBooks sold annually, Penguin Random House’s publishing lists include more than 80 Nobel Prize laureates and hundreds of the world’s most widely read authors.