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Florida county school district sued by largest U.S. publisher over book ban

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A Florida county school district is allegedly violating the First Amendment by its removal of books discussing race, racism and LGBTQ+ identities, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by Penguin Random House, PEN America, authors and parents. 

The lawsuit claims that the school district ordered the removal of books against the recommendations of its own experts, with the banned books including "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison, "The Nowhere Girls" by Amy Reed and "Lucky" by Alice Sebold.

The legal action comes amid a push by Florida's Republican governor Ron DeSantis, who isn't named in the lawsuit, to allow the censorship and challenging of books based on whether they are appropriate for children in schools. Escambia County, located in Florida's panhandle and home to Pensacola, is allegedly "depriving students of access to a wide range of viewpoints" and specifically targeting books that "critics view as too 'woke,'" the lawsuit claims.

"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 lawsuit claims. "Further, the school board is ordering the removal against the recommendations of experts within the school district."

Escambia County Public Schools said it is unable to comment on pending litigation. 

The lawsuit also alleges the book bans violate the Equal Protection Clause because they single out titles that are largely written by non-white or LGBTQ+ authors. The challenged books often address topics about race or LGBTQ+ identity, the lawsuit says.

PEN America, a group that champions free speech, said removing titles from school libraries teaches students that books are dangerous. That's a lesson that should not be taught in a democracy, Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America, said in a statement

"In Escambia County, state censors are spiriting books off shelves in a deliberate attempt to suppress diverse voices," she said. "In a nation built on free speech, this cannot stand."

One parent, Lindsay Durtschi, said she joined the lawsuit because she believes banning diverse books creates "irreparable harm to the voices and safety of students in Florida."

Other books that have been challenged or removed from the Escambia County school district, and whose authors are also part of the lawsuit, include:

  • "Uncle Bobby's Wedding," a book by Sarah Brannen 
  • "All Boys Aren't Blue," a memoir by George M. Johnson about growing up Black and gay
  • "Two Boys Kissing," by David Levithan, a gay author of young adult fiction
  • "When Aidan Became a Brother" and "Too Bright to See," by Kyle Lukoff, a transgender author
  • "Out of Darkness," a young adult novel that deals with racism by Ashely Hope Pérez
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