We blogged earlier in the year about PEN America's top banned book list (see that post here). Now PEN is going on the offensive. In a case filed Wednesday in the District Court for the Northern District of Florida, PEN, Penguin and a collection of authors and parents have challenged a Florida school district's ban on their books--which disproportionately deal (unsurprisingly) with issues involving race, gender or sexuality. In PEN Am. Ctr. Inc. v. Escambia County Sch. Dist., No, 3:23 Civ. 10385 (N.D. Fl.), the plaintiffs claim that the ban violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments by restricting free expression on impermissible grounds. As a result, students are deprived of access to a range of viewpoints, and the expression of authors is hampered.
The ban apparently started a year ago when a language arts teach in the high school objected to The Perks of Being a Wallflower being placed in classrooms for optional use, claiming it included pornographic material. Her support seemed to come largely from similar efforts in Texas to ban these books, as well as a website called Book Looks, which bills itself as "A busy parent's quick reference to objectionable material your child or young adult may be reading". (I'll assume this readership does not need a "quick" guide, so will not link it here.)
Although a panel of school leadership, faculty and staff voted to retain the book and a district review committee agreed, the Escambia school board nevertheless decided to remove it from the school district's libraries. That same teacher then returned with a list of 116 books that she wanted evaluated for removal--that list has since grown to 197. In what seems to be a new policy, the school district began automatically restricting access to challenged books pending a decision, meaning that to check out these books, students must get a form signed by their parents--a policy that seems to have later been modified, although most of the books still remain restricted--and has officially banned ten books including Wallflower, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, as well as And Tango Makes Three--which New York readers may remember is the story of the male Central Park Zoo penguin pair who raised their own chick, but which this teacher asserted serves the gay agenda by using penguins. The suit alleges that, to date, the school district has not rejected a single book proposed by the teacher, with the School Board Chair being quoted as saying "I’m not gonna sit here and read 125 books. Fortunately, it don’t take long, particularly with this English teacher because she’s identified every page in there. I don’t have to read a smut book all the way from the very beginning to the very end."
As the Supreme Court found in Bd. of Educ. v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), while school administrators “possess significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries,” that “discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner” (id. at 870) because “[o]ur Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas.” Id. at 871. The suit alleges that the ban violates the First Amendment by restricting access to books based on political or ideological disagreement with the ideas they express. It further violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the ban disproportionately targets books by non-white and/or LGBTQ authors, or which address topics related to race or LGBTQ identity.
Florida is no stranger to books bans, having permanently or temporarily removed 500 books in the year ending June 30, 2022 alone. It has also recently passed laws making these challenges easier, including legislation that prohibit instruction that could make children feel guilty about past actions of members of their race, and ban instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation.
With all of the book bans that have been sweeping the nation, this is a case to watch, and one that involves some unique elements. While this is not the first case to challenge a ban, it is one of the first to include a broader range of plaintiffs, including authors who claim that their free expression is being suppressed. It also challenges not only the free speech issues involved in book bans, but the disproportionate impact on non-white and LGBTQ+ authors and issues. We'll look forward to reading more.