Lindsay Durtschi, a member of the P.T.A. in bright-red Escambia County, Fla., knows that coming out as a public face in the fight against book banning could make her life difficult, but she’s made peace with it. “I don’t want my business to suffer,” the optometrist and mother of elementary school-age girls told me. “I don’t want my kids to be bullied.” She worries her family could be threatened. “But if that’s what ends up happening, then I’ll tell everybody about it. I’m not one to keep my mouth shut.”
Durtschi is part of a groundbreaking lawsuit, filed on Wednesday, against the Escambia County School District and Escambia County School Board for their sweeping school library censorship. In addition to Durtschi and another Escambia County parent, the plaintiffs include the free expression organization PEN America, Penguin Random House and a group of authors of children’s and young adult books. The suit seeks to have Escambia’s book restrictions declared unconstitutional for targeting specific viewpoints and for infringing on the rights of students to receive information. Given the frenzy of book bans we’re now seeing nationwide — The Washington Post reported that in several states, librarians can be sent to prison for giving kids the wrong books — the outcome will have national implications.
The local school board’s actions, said Suzanne Nossel, the head of PEN America, are “an emblematic and egregious example of the pattern that we’ve been documenting across the country as far as an escalation in book removals and targeting of specific narratives involving people of color and L.G.B.T.Q. authors and stories.”
What I find most fascinating about the lawsuit, though, is the glimpse it offers into how national and state-level political dynamics empower the most fanatical members of a community to impose their will on everyone else.
Much of the impetus for book restrictions in Escambia came from one person — a high school English teacher named Vicki Baggett. Last May, Baggett went after “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” a young adult coming-of-age novel published in 1999, which high school students could choose to read for a class assignment. She cited, among other things, the book’s “extreme sexual content descriptions.” But a school panel voted 4 to 3 to retain the book, so Baggett appealed to an assistant superintendent. The assistant superintendent convened another committee, which Durtschi was on. That committee also voted to let students opt to read the book, so Baggett went to the school board. (Baggett did not respond to an email seeking comment. A spokesperson for the district earlier told The New York Times that it can’t comment on pending litigation.)
Meanwhile, Baggett expanded her crusade, preparing a list of 116 books she wanted removed from school libraries, including “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, “The House of Spirits” by Isabel Allende, and, in elementary schools, “Draw Me a Star” by Eric Carle, author of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” because it has a picture of a naked man and woman. “When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball,” a book about how the famous Black sprinter overcame polio to win gold at the Olympics, made the list for its descriptions of the racism Rudolph faced as a child in segregated Tennessee. Baggett, who told the journalist Judd Legum that she’s a member of the neo-Confederate group Daughters of the Confederacy, accused the book of “race-baiting.”
According to the lawsuit, Baggett found an ally in then-school board chair Kevin Adams. Adams told a local news site that he’d asked the superintendent to “quarantine or remove from circulation” the challenged books, short-circuiting the review process. This appears to have gone against the advice of the school board’s own general counsel, who issued a statement at the time saying that while the board has the power to remove books, “it cannot do so simply because it disagrees with the message of a book or it offends the personal morals of an individual.”
Nevertheless, the books were placed in a restricted section of the libraries and could be accessed only with parental permission, pending reviews by committees assembled to evaluate each title. Eventually, this policy was changed, so only books accused of being harmful to minors or running afoul of the Parental Rights in Education Act — often known as the Don’t Say Gay Law — were sequestered. But that was still a lot of books: Even though the law is written to apply to classroom instruction, the presence of gay or trans characters was enough to get a work pulled from a library. One book taken off elementary school shelves was “And Tango Makes Three,” a picture book based on the true story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo that raised a chick together, which one of Durtschi’s daughters had particularly enjoyed. The board eventually voted to permanently remove it.
Durtschi doesn’t blame Baggett for what’s happening at her kids’ school. “The person that is to blame for this is Ron DeSantis,” she told me. It’s DeSantis, after all, who has made the war on wokeness, particularly in schools, central to his political agenda.
“I was probably five feet from Governor DeSantis today who made it very clear to me how he felt about some of this stuff,” Adams said at the school board meeting where “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” was banned. “I wondered why so many students had mental health issues and disciplinary problems, bad disciplinary problems. I believe they’re being poisoned by what they hear and what they read.”
DeSantis has taken legitimate anxiety over student well-being in the wake of the pandemic and channeled it into a spiraling moral panic. “Now these voices — you know, Daughters of the Confederacy, Moms for Liberty”— a right-wing women’s group that has spearheaded book bans nationwide — “they’ve been given license now to bring their hatred to the mainstream,” said Durtschi.
Durtschi, who grew up in an evangelical household and attended a Christian college, said she doesn’t want to “devalue” the feelings of people who might be anxious about what children are encountering in school. But she’s also livid about what her own kids are now learning. “We’re going to teach you how to tie a tourniquet in case of an active shooter, but they can’t know that men and women may not be the only option for a marriage license?” she said incredulously. “I’m OK with some hating me for bucking against it,” she added.
At a meeting the day before the lawsuit was filed, the Escambia County School Board voted to abruptly fire the district’s superintendent, Tim Smith, in part because, acting on the advice of the school board general counsel, he’d balked at removing books. Before Smith left, he offered some parting words to the board. “There’s something bad that exists here,” he said. “There’s something toxic that exists here.” And it doesn’t exist only in Escambia, which is why this lawsuit matters.