On the day that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a slate of bills to protect innocent children — including more restrictions on what kids can read in classrooms and school libraries — PEN America and others have filed a lawsuit in a federal court on book bans in Escambia County School District in Florida’s Panhandle.
A remedy: Return books to school library shelves, particularly books considered “targeted,” according to the lawsuit.
For example, the lawsuit references the book “Forever,” by Judy Blume, “an author of more than 25 novels over more than five decades — mainly for children and young adults—including “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” which is now a film this year.
Blume’s “Forever” book “is a realistic and thoughtful portrayal of teen romance and sexuality told from the perspective of a high school senior entering her first serious relationship. Although published in 1975, the book has remained a relevant and appreciated work in the nearly fifty years since its initial release,” the lawsuit states.
In that lawsuit, Vicki Baggett, a language arts teacher at the School District’s Northview High School in the Escambia school district, challenged “Forever”. . . on the basis that it contained “extremely graphic sexual content” and “sexual excitement,” that it had no strengths as educational media, and that its sole purpose was “sexual excitement. Based on that objection, “Forever”. . . is currently subject to restricted access within School District libraries.”
Other books removed in the district include the late Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” her first novel.
The lawsuit involves the Escambia County School District and its local school board, as defendants.
In addition to PEN American Center, Inc., plaintiffs include powerhouse publisher Penguin Random House, several authors, and parents of children.
Overall, the lawsuit focuses on the school district’s decisions to remove and restrict book from public school libraries.
“Of the 197 books that have been targeted for removal, approximately 40% have authors who are non-white and/or identify as LGBTQ, while approximately 60% address themes relating to race or LGBTQ identity.
“Of the 154 books that have either been removed or restricted, approximately 37% have authors who are non-white and/or identify as LGBTQ, while approximately 60% address themes relating to race or LGBTQ identity, or feature prominent non-white and/or LGBTQ characters,” the lawsuit states.
“These restrictions and removals have disproportionately targeted books by or about people of color and/or LGBTQ people, and have prescribed an orthodoxy of opinion that violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments,” the lawsuit states.
In addition, “Books are being ordered removed from libraries, or subject to restricted access within those libraries, based on an ideologically driven campaign to push certain ideas out of schools. Further, the School Board is ordering the removal against the recommendations of experts within the School District. This disregard for professional guidance underscores that the agendas underlying the removals are ideological and political, not pedagogical.”
“As a result, the School District and the School Board are 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. Such viewpoint discrimination violates the First Amendment,” the lawsuit states.
Also: “The actions of the School District and School Board also violate the Equal Protection Clause because the books being singled out for possible removal are disproportionately books by non-white and/or LGBTQ authors, or which address topics related to race or LGBTQ identity. 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. Government action may not be premised on such discriminatory motivations.”
The bills signed into law by DeSantis on Wednesday included HB 1069, which makes changes in the process of reviewing and removing of books in Florida’s public schools.
For example, any material in a school or classroom library or a reading list that is subject to an objection must be removed within 5 school days, according to HB 1069’s language, and remain unavailable to students of that school until the objection is resolved, among other measures.
At a news conference Wednesday at the civil rights organization Equality Florida, public policy director Jon Harris Maurer referenced the PEN America lawsuit on book bans and censorship and added more on the legal front:
“We’ve talked to several legal partners. They’ve been following this slate of bills very closely,” meaning the bills signed into law by DeSantis on Wednesday, Maurer said.
“I expect we will see lawsuits over several of these bills. But at this point, I can’t share more yet on exactly which bills and which partners, but…people will see recourse in the courts for where we’re seeing these government overreaches.”
–Diane Rado, Florida Phoenix