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Penguin Random House and Florida parents sue school district over book bans

The publishing house, five of its authors, parents and an advocacy group allege that removing the books discussing race and LGBTQ people violates the First Amendment.
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Penguin Random House, authors, parents and a free speech group filed a lawsuit Wednesday against a Florida school district for removing 10 books related to race and the LGBTQ community after a high school teacher complained. 

In addition to the publishing house, PEN America, a nonprofit group that advocates for free expression in literature, five authors whose books have been removed from the district, and two parents whose children go to school in the district filed the suit against the Escambia County School District and the Escambia County School Board in Pensacola, Florida.

A copy of the often banned book All Boys Aren't Blue, a memoir manifesto by LGBTQIA activist George M. Johnson.
"All Boys Aren't Blue," a memoir manifesto by LGBTQ activist George M. Johnson.Alamy Stock Photo

The plaintiffs alleged that the district and the board violated the First Amendment by “depriving students of access to a wide range of viewpoints, and depriving the authors of the removed and restricted books of the opportunity to engage with readers and disseminate their ideas to their intended audiences.” 

They also argued that the removals violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment “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.”

“This is no accident,” the suit alleged. “The clear agenda behind the campaign to remove the books is to categorically remove all discussion of racial discrimination or LGBTQ issues from public school libraries. Government action may not be premised on such discriminatory motivations.”

Neither the district nor the school board immediately responded to requests for comment. However, Bill Slayton, a member of the school board, told NBC News correspondent Antonia Hylton that he was surprised by the lawsuit because the school board and the superintendent have been following state law.

"We have been removing books that have been called inappropriate, pornography," he said. "I guess I'm a little surprised because this is going on all over the state of Florida, not just here. My reaction is our procedures are following what we have been told we have to do."

The plaintiffs allege a campaign to restrict access to books in the Escambia County School District began last May after Vicki Baggett, a language arts teacher at the district’s Northview High School, challenged “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky. Baggett expanded her effort in the fall and challenged more than 100 books for “questionable content,” prompting a book purge in the district, according to the Pensacola News Journal. 

Baggett did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since last May, the district and the school board have removed or indefinitely restricted access to five books by the author plaintiffs: “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” by Sarah Brannen, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan, “When Aidan Became a Brother” by Kyle Lukoff and “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Pérez. 

The other removed or indefinitely restricted books include “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, “Milo Imagines the World” by Matt de la Peña, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and “Push” by Sapphire.  More than 100 other titles are restricted and require parental approval for access.

Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement 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. In a nation built on free speech, this cannot stand,” she said. “The law demands that the Escambia County School District put removed or restricted books back on library shelves where they belong.”

One of the plaintiffs, Lindsay Durtschi, an Escambia County parent, said removing the books ultimately harms children. 

“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,” Durtschi said. “Our children need the adults in their lives to stand up for the promise of inclusion and equity.”

In its latest annual book censorship report, the American Library Association documented 1,269 challenges to more than 2,500 books last year, the highest number of attempted book bans since it began tracking such efforts in 2001. Of the 13 books that made its list of most challenged books last year, seven titles — including three of the top four — were challenged for having LGBTQ content, it found.