Penguin Random House Joins Parents and Others in Challenging Florida School Board’s Book Ban
By LawCommentary | Posted on May 22, 2023
Penguin Random House books
A West Florida school district is facing a federal lawsuit brought forward by Penguin Random House, parents, and a group of free-speech organizations.
The lawsuit filed earlier this week in Pensacola was led by writers' advocacy group PEN America and Penguin Random House, the third largest publisher in the nation. Five authors behind books that have been removed in the state along with two parents of students in the district have also joined in on the lawsuit. The complaint accuses school leaders in Escambia County of unjustly removing and restricting books offered in the public school system's libraries, and violating the First Amendment rights of Floridians.
The lawsuit claims that the district, which has been heavily influenced by Republican lawmakers and Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration, is disproportionately targeting books with characters who represent diverse identities. The plaintiffs take issue with the specific targeting of books that explore gender identity, race identity, and topics relating to the LGBTQ community.
The lawsuit explains, “Today, Escambia County seeks to bar books critics view as too ‘woke.’ 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.”
Roughly 200 books have been removed from the public school system’s library, including several books published by Penguin Random House, with titles like Push by Sapphire and Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison being banned in the district.
A wave of banned books began last year when a high school teacher in Escambia County argued against 116 books that were available in the school system’s library. The books were described as containing "explicit sexual content, graphic language, themes, vulgarity, and political pushes."
Others began to follow the teacher's lead, resulting in the removal of nearly 200 books that touted characters of commonly marginalized communities. In addition to targeting these books because of the characters they describe, the lawsuit explains that the school officials acted in a way that violated their own policies, procedures, and review board recommendations when they removed the books.
The lawsuit explains that the district “Repeatedly ignored their existing policies for review. In every decision to remove a book, the School District has sided with a challenger expressing openly discriminatory bases for challenge, overruling the recommendations of review committees at the school and district levels.”
As a result, the book removals 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 lawsuit comes on the heels of a tumultuous two years in which the state's governor has cracked down on the state’s dealings with critical race theory and diversity, equity, and inclusivity initiatives.
More recently, Governor DeSantis signed legislation that would defund public state university programs designed for the purpose of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In doing so, the governor says that the universities can avoid “distraction from the core mission.”
The lawsuit is seeking to have a judge put a stop to the school district's current practice of pulling books off of school shelves. The lawsuit is also seeking attorneys’ fees and other “further relief as the interest of justice may require.”