PEN America Files Lawsuit Against Florida School District Over Unconstitutional Book Bans
Lawsuit Asserts Escambia County School Board Unlawfully Removes or Restricts Access to Books on Race, Racism and LGBTQ Identities.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(PENSACOLA, FL) — Free expression organization PEN America, alongside publisher Penguin Random House, authors, and parents of children affected by the unconstitutional book bans carried out by Florida’s Escambia County School District and School Board, filed suit today in federal court asking for books to be returned to school library shelves where they belong.
Ensuring that students have access to books on a wide range of topics and expressing a diversity of viewpoints supports a core function of public education, preparing students to be thoughtful and engaged citizens. In contravention of these basic principles, the lawsuit alleges, Escambia County has set out to exclude certain ideas from their school libraries by removing or restricting books, some of which have been on the shelves for years—even decades. This lawsuit brings together authors whose books have been banned, parents and students in the district who cannot access the books, and a publisher in a first-of-its-kind challenge to unlawful censorship.
According to the lawsuit, the school board’s removal and restriction of access to books discussing race, racism, and LGBTQ identities, against the recommendations of the district review committee charged with evaluating book challenges, violates the First Amendment. By ignoring these recommendations, the school district made clear that its interests are in censoring certain ideas and viewpoints, not pedagogy, and that it is willing to allow an extremist minority to substitute its political agenda for the judgment of educators and parents.
The lawsuit further contends that the school district and school board are violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution because the books being singled out are disproportionately books by non-white and/or LGBTQ authors, and often address themes or topics related to race or LGBTQ identity.
“Children in a democracy must not be taught that books are dangerous. The freedom to read is guaranteed by the constitution,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. “In Escambia County, state censors are spiriting books off shelves in a deliberate attempt to suppress diverse voices. 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.”
“The targeted book removals we are seeing in Escambia County are blatantly unconstitutional attempts to silence and stigmatize,” said Nadine Farid Johnson, counsel and Managing Director of PEN America Washington and Free Expression Programs. “The government should not foster censorship by proxy, allowing one person to decide what ideas are out of bounds for all.”
“Books have the capacity to change lives for the better, and students in particular deserve equitable access to a wide range of perspectives. Censorship, in the form of book bans like those enacted by Escambia County, are a direct threat to democracy and our constitutional rights,” said Nihar Malaviya, CEO of Penguin Random House. “We stand by our authors, their books, and the teachers, librarians, and parents who champion free expression. We are proud to join forces with our longtime partner PEN America.”
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.
“Young readers in Escambia schools and across the nation deserve a complete and honest education, one that provides them with full access in libraries to a wide range of literature that reflects varied viewpoints and that explores the diversity of human experiences,” said Ashley Hope Pérez, author of Out of Darkness, one of the books targeted by the school district. “As a former public high school English teacher, I know firsthand how important libraries are. For many young people, if a book isn’t in their school library, it might as well not exist.”
Plaintiffs Lindsay Durtschi and Ann Novakowski are parents of children who attend Escambia County schools, seeking to ensure their children have access to the books they wish to read and that they are exposed to different viewpoints and experiences so that they will be better prepared to engage with people who are different from them
“Without diverse representation in literature in school libraries and inclusive dialogue in the classroom, we are doing irreparable harm to the voices and safety of students in Florida,” said Lindsay Durtschi, an Escambia County parent and plaintiff. “Our children need the adults in their lives to stand up for the promise of inclusion and equity.”
The plaintiffs are represented in the lawsuit by Ballard Spahr LLP and Protect Democracy.
For the past two years, PEN America has tracked the growth of a nationwide educational censorship campaign to impose ideological control over the freedom to read, learn, and think. This campaign — dubbed the “Ed Scare” by PEN America — is evident in the rapid spread and passage of educational gag orders, and the unprecedented rise of book bans. Since January 2021, 306 educational gag order bills have been introduced in 45 different states, and 22 have become law in 16 states. And beginning in the 2021-22 school year, book bans have become an increasingly common feature of public schools, toppling 4,000 individual bans from July 2021-December 2022.
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.
Contacts: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057
Jonny Levenfeld, [email protected]; (202) 704-4535