By Brett Wilkins / Common Dreams
The free expression group PEN America on Wednesday joined Penguin Random House—the largest U.S. book publisher—and a group of authors and parents in a lawsuit challenging a Florida county school district’s banning of titles about race and LGBTQ+ topics, a policy stemming from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ self-described “war on woke.”
“Today, Escambia County seeks to bar books critics view as too ‘woke,'” states the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida and seeks to return proscribed titles to school libraries.
“In the 1970s, schools sought to bar Slaughterhouse-Five and books edited by Langston Hughes,” the suit notes. “Tomorrow, it could be books about Christianity, the country’s founders, or war heroes. All of these removals run afoul of the First Amendment.”
Support our Independent Journalism — Donate Today!
According toThe New York Times:
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 LGBTQ agenda using penguins.”
The school board—which is a defendant in the case, along with the district—has so far “voted to remove 10 books, some entirely and others from certain grade levels,” the Times reported. “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.”
PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement that “children in a democracy must not be taught that books are dangerous. The freedom to read is guaranteed by the Constitution.”
“In Escambia County, state censors are spiriting books off shelves in a deliberate attempt to suppress diverse voices,” Nossel added. “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.”
Penguin Random House CEO Nihar Malaviya said that “books have the capacity to change lives for the better, and students in particular deserve equitable access to a wide range of perspectives.”
“Censorship, in the form of book bans like those enacted by Escambia County, [is] a direct threat to democracy and our constitutional rights,” Malaviya added. “We stand by our authors, their books, and the teachers, librarians, and parents who champion free expression.”
Lindsay Durtschi, an Escambia County parent and plaintiff in the suit, argued that “without diverse representation in literature in school libraries and inclusive dialogue in the classroom, we are doing irreparable harm to the voices and safety of students in Florida.”
“Our children need the adults in their lives to stand up for the promise of inclusion and equity,” Durtschi added.
The new lawsuit comes amid a relentless attack by DeSantis—a likely 2024 Republican presidential candidate—on educational freedom from kindergarten through the university level.
On Wednesday, DeSantis signed a bill extending the so-called “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law—which prohibits classroom discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity—to include all grades K-12.
The governor has also replaced key state education officials with right-wing allies who toe his “anti-woke” line, while stoking a climate of fear in which educators have removed books from classroom libraries to avoid running afoul of bans on titles dealing with race or LGBTQ+ issues.
Common Dreams reported last month that laws passed in Republican-controlled states have led to nearly 1,500 book bans nationwide during just the first half of the 2022-23 school year. This followed a record number of book bans last year, according to the American Library Association.
Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams.