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Florida School District Is Sued Over Book Restrictions

by Staff

A lawsuit filed in federal court on Wednesday said that a Florida county violated the First Amendment by removing or restricting certain kinds of books from its school libraries.

The free-speech organization PEN America and the country’s largest book publisher, Penguin Random House, filed the lawsuit, along with a group of authors and parents. The complaint said that the Escambia County School District and school board also violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution because books they targeted were disproportionately written by nonwhite and L.G.B.T.Q. authors and addressed themes of race, racism, gender and sexuality.

“Today, Escambia County seeks to bar books critics view as too ‘woke,’” said the complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida. “In the 1970s, schools sought to bar ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ and books edited by Langston Hughes. Tomorrow, it could be books about Christianity, the country’s founders or war heroes. All of these removals run afoul of the First Amendment.”

The lawsuit comes at a moment when many educators and free-speech advocates are alarmed by the surge in book-banning efforts in schools and libraries across the United States. The sharp rise in book challenges over the past two years comes as books have become targets in a broader culture war.

Whereas in the past it was typically parents who filed complaints against individual titles, current efforts to remove books have been fueled by a rapidly growing constellation of conservative groups such as Moms for Liberty. They are often national in scope and can run organized campaigns on social media. New legislation in several states, particularly Florida, has made it easier to challenge and remove books.

In Escambia County, the restrictions the lawsuit is concerned with began when Vicki Baggett, a language-arts teacher at the district’s Northview High School challenged more than 100 titles beginning last year. Among them were picture books, young adult novels and works of nonfiction. The complaint described her objections as “nakedly ideological,” saying that she had argued that the books “should be evaluated based on explicit sexual content, graphic language, themes, vulgarity and political pushes.”

Among the books was “And Tango Makes Three,” about a penguin family with two fathers, which she objected to for “serving an ‘L.G.B.T.Q. agenda using penguins.’”

The complaint said that many of her written challenges appeared to be pulled, sometimes verbatim, from a website called Book Looks, which contains hundreds of reports about books that were deemed objectionable by the website’s operators.

Ms. Baggett, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, spoke at an Escambia school board meeting on Tuesday and argued that the district had failed to remove many of the books she and others had identified as inappropriate for students.

“I have been begging you simply to follow the law and remove books that are obviously inappropriate,” she said.

So far, the school board has voted to remove 10 books, some entirely and others from certain grade levels. In each instance, the board did so despite a recommendation from a district-level committee of educators, media specialists, community members and parents that the books remain in place.

The district has also changed what happens to books while the legal challenge plays out. Traditionally, books would remain on the shelves until after they were evaluated and possibly removed. Now, many of those books are placed in a restricted area that children need parental permission to enter. The lawsuit described the policy as allowing an indefinite restricting of titles and said that entering a special area would be a significant hurdle for a child, one that could come with a certain stigma.

Cody Strother, a spokesman for the Escambia school district, said the district was unable to comment on pending litigation. Two school board members said they could not comment on an active lawsuit

Florida has become a hot spot in the dispute over what reading material is appropriate for children. Last year, the state legislature passed three laws regulating educational or reading materials. One prohibits instruction that could make children feel guilty about past actions of members of their race, and another bans instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation. Initially limited to elementary school, the law now applies to all grades. But this debate is not limited to one state.

“Escambia offers a very vivid and disturbing example of what’s happening across the country,” said Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of PEN America, “these politically motivated, ideologically driven, view-point-based bans on books.”

Proponents of book restrictions say they are trying to protect children from inappropriate material and to give parents more say in their children’s education. Many also object to saying that these books are banned because they are still available in public libraries and bookstores. Young people, they say, should encounter sensitive topics with adult supervision, not alone in the school library.

Several authors whose books have been removed or restricted in the district joined the lawsuit, including Sarah Brannen, George M. Johnson, David Levithan, Kyle Lukoff and Ashley Hope Pérez.

Ms. Brannen’s picture book, “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding,” which features a girl whose uncle marries his boyfriend, was challenged in Escambia by a resident who objected to the content because the “book contains alternate sexual ideologies” and “should not be in lower levels in elementary at all,” according to a form that was filled out.

One example of inappropriate content provided in the objection was an illustration that showed Uncle Bobby holding his boyfriend’s hand. Access to the book, which is aimed at 3- to 7-year-olds, has been restricted during the review period, meaning that only students whose parents sign an opt-in form can read it, according to the lawsuit.

“It seems very clear from the nature of the complaints against the books that they are being removed on ideological grounds, and therefore it’s clearly unconstitutional,” Ms. Brannen said. “My book is being restricted because it has L.G.B.T.Q. characters in it.”

Penguin Random House was also part of the suit. Many of its books have been removed from Escambia school libraries or otherwise restricted, including “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “Push” by Sapphire and “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini. “We see a rise in these book-banning activities, and we felt compelled to support our authors, our teachers, our librarians, who are on the front lines of these battles on a day-to-day basis,” said Nihar Malaviya, the company’s chief executive.

One of the parents who is suing the district, Lindsay Durtschi, lives in Pensacola and has a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old in school in Escambia. Ms. Durtschi said she volunteered to join the committee that was formed to evaluate books to make sure they complied with new guidelines. She was alarmed to see that the books being scrutinized were mainly about themes of race, gender or sexuality.

“It’s important, as part of their public education, that they are encountering lives that look different from their own,” she said of her own children and other students. “It’s infringing on our students’ First Amendment rights, because even if a book is available in the public library or on the internet, that does not negate the necessity for it to be in the school library, because not every child is privileged to have their parents pick up a library card or to have a tablet or an e-reader.”

Ms. Durtschi said she was particularly upset that two books her 9-year-old daughter loves — “And Tango Makes Three” and “Drama,” a graphic novel about a girl who loves theater — were removed from the school library.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t want my kid to read that book,’” she said. “But if the book isn’t there, no one can read it.”

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