Academic Freedom | Freedom of Expression

PEN America Sues Florida School District Over Book Bans

book bans
Buttons available for attendees sit during a read-in and rally against book bans and in support of books and reading, at Common Ground Bookstore, in Tallahassee, Florida, March 21, 2023. (Reuters/Colin Hackley)

By Susanna Granieri

PEN America, along with Penguin Random House, select authors and parents of children enrolled in Florida’s Escambia County School District filed a federal lawsuit against the district and its board May 17 requesting banned books and those under review be returned to library shelves.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, claims the school district violated the First Amendment by siding with those who express “openly discriminatory bases” for book challenges and has “disproportionately targeted books by or about people of color and/or LGBTQ people.”

“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,” the complaint states.

According to PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans, between July and December 2022 there have been 1,477 occurrences of books banned from school libraries and curriculums across the country, affecting 874 specific titles.

Ten books have been removed “from some or all libraries” by the Escambia School Board, the lawsuit states, and “over 150 additional books have been targeted for removal and are currently under review.”

Previous: An Unprecedented Uptick in Book Bans Brings First Amendment Scrutiny

The lawsuit claims that the removal of the books constitutes viewpoint discrimination as the bans and restricted access of specific titles are “based on ideological objections to their contents or disagreement with their messages.” It also contends that the removal and restriction of certain books interferes with the First Amendment right to access information, as set forth in the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico.

In Pico, the Supreme Court’s majority opinion stated that school libraries have “special characteristics,” making “that environment especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students.”

“Local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion,’” the opinion stated

“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 a press release. “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.”

May 17, 2023 — PEN America, et al. v. Escambia County School District and Escambia County School Board