Penguin Random House, Pen America Sue Florida School District Over Book Bans

Writer’s organization PEN America, publisher Penguin Random House and a group of authors and parents are suing a Florida school district over its removal of books about race and LGBTQ+ identities in response to a policy championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, claiming the bans are “nakedly ideological.”

The lawsuit, filed in federal court on Wednesday, claims the Escambia County School District and its school board are violating the First Amendment through the removal of 10 books from library shelves. It does not name DeSantis as a defendant.

“These restrictions and removals have disproportionately targeted books by or about people of color and/or LGBTQ people, and have prescribed an orthodoxy of opinion that violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments,” the suit states.

PEN explained the suit maintains the district is violating the First Amendment rights of the students, authors and publishers by removing books “based on an ideologically driven campaign
to push certain ideas out of schools.”

It is also violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the suit said, “because the books being singled out for possible removal are disproportionately books by non-white and/or LGBTQ authors, or which address topics related to race or LGBTQ identity.”

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The lawsuit maintains that all of the removals followed objections from one high school language arts teacher in the county, Vicki Baggett, who started out by targeting “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky, which deals the struggles of adolescence. “Research that PEN America has
published—and that Baggett would later cite as a justification for her attempts to get Wallflower removed—shows that Wallflower has been among the most removed books in the country,” the suit states.

While a panel voted to keep the book as an optional novel, Baggett appealed the decision, claiming the book was “pornographic,” and a second committee voted to keep the novel on the shelves. She then escalated her complaint to the district superintendent and school board, citing material that came from a website which reports on books the site’s operators deem objectionable, the lawsuit states.

Bagget also broadened her efforts, the lawsuit claims, by objecting to more books — eventually numbering 116 titles “from picture books to teen and adult novels, and [including] both works of fiction and nonfiction,” the lawsuit states.

In each case, the school board voted to remove the books over recommendations from the district review committees that deemed them educationally suitable.

“Today, Escambia County seeks to bar books critics view as too “woke,” the lawsuit states. “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, which is rightly disinterested in the cause du jour.”

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The organization maintains that Florida “has one of the highest rates of book removals and restrictions in the country.”

Some of those books were written by members of PEN America, which has about 7,500 professional writers, and some were published by Penguin Random House, the largest book publisher in the U.S.

“Books have the capacity to change lives for the better, and students in particular deserve equitable access to a wide range of perspectives,” said Penguin Random House CEO Nihar Malaviya in a statement. “Censorship, in the form of book bans like those enacted by Escambia County, are a direct threat to democracy and our Constitutional rights.”

While the lawsuit is focused on one district in Florida, book bans have picked up pace throughout the country in recent years as Republicans have ratcheted up the culture wars.

Escambia County school officials could not be immediately reached for comment. The district on Wednesday night fired its superintendent, Tim Smith without discussion following a performance evaluation, local public radio station WUWF reported. The dismissal does not appear to be related to the lawsuit or book bans.

The writers named in the suit include Sarah Brannen, author of “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding,” George M. Johnson, author of “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” David Levithan, author of “Two Boys Kissing,” Kyle Lukoff, who wrote” When Aidan Became a Brother,” and Ashely Hope Pére, author of “Out of Darkness.”