US Book Bannings: PEN America Sues a Florida School District

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

PEN America’s lawsuit includes Penguin Random House, authors, and parents in its plaintiffs in a court filing made in Pensacola.

Image – Getty iStockphoto: Alexandre Tziripouloff

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Nihar Malaviya: ‘A Direct Threat to Democracy’
Today (May 17), PEN America has announced its lawsuit of Florida’s Escambia County School Board for “unlawfully removing or restricting access to books on race, racism, and LGBTQ identities.”

Filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Pensacola, the complaint reads, “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. 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.”

Ironically, also today, the Tampa Bay Times‘ Marlene Sokol is reporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signing of new bills “that will govern conversations about student pronouns in public schools, limit access to gender-affirming care, and allow group prayer before sporting events.” While rolling out a suite of five bills the govern calls his “Let Kids Be Kids” package, DeSantis, “claimed the Hillsborough County school board voted to allow pornographic material in schools. The board did take up the issue on March 28 of a book that had been challenged, the nonfiction This Book Is Gay. But on that day, the board voted 4-3 to remove the book from all middle school libraries.”

As DeSantis has widened his activities in the educational systems of Florida, book bannings and other efforts in censorship have become heavily reported and followed.

In filing its 59-page lawsuit of the Escambia school board today with the court, PEN includes Penguin Random House among its plaintiffs, as well as “authors whose books have been ordered removed from libraries in the [Escambia County] school district and targeted for such removal and subjected to restricted access” and “parents of students who attend schools in the school district, who are suing on behalf of both themselves and their minor children for access to removed and restricted books.”

A key title in the papers filed in court is author Stephen Chbosky’s coming of age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower from Penguin in a 20th-anniversary edition, originally a New York Times bestseller for more than a year. Chbosky wrote and directed the film adaptation of his book for a 2012 release from Lionsgate.

In its announcement today of what it sees as a “first-of-its-kind challenge to unlawful censorship,” PEN writes, “According to the lawsuit, the school board’s removal and restriction of access to books discussing race, racism, and LGBTQ identities, against the recommendations of the district review committee charged with evaluating book challenges, violates the First Amendment. By ignoring these recommendations, the school district made clear that its interests are in censoring certain ideas and viewpoints, not pedagogy, and that it is willing to allow an extremist minority to substitute its political agenda for the judgment of educators and parents.

Nihar Malaviya

In a statement from Nihar Malaviya, CEO of Penguin Random House, we read, “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, are a direct threat to democracy and our constitutional right.

“We stand by our authors, their books, and the teachers, librarians, and parents who champion free expression. We are proud to join forces with our longtime partner PEN America.”

“The lawsuit further contends that the school district and school board are violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution because the books being singled out are disproportionately books by non-white and/or LGBTQ authors, and often address themes or topics related to race or LGBTQ identity.”

The authors involved in the suit, all of whom have either already had their books removed by the district and/or restricted from student access, include author and children’s book illustrator Sarah Brannen; young adult fiction authors David Levithan, George M. Johnson and Ashley Hope Pérez; and children’s book author Kyle Lukoff.

Two of the plaintiffs are parents of children who attend school in the Escambia County district in Florida.

Suzanne Nossel

Suzanne Nossel, PEN America CEO, is quoted, saying, “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.

“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.”

Since January 2021, the PEN statement issued today to news media, “306 educational gag order bills have been introduced in 45 different states, and 22 have become law in 16 states. And beginning in the 2021-22 school year, book bans have become an increasingly common feature of public schools, toppling 4,000 individual bans from July 2021-December 2022.”

The plaintiffs are represented in the lawsuit by Ballard Spahr LLP and Protect Democracy.

 More from Publishing Perspectives on banned books and the issues around such censorship is here, more on the freedom to publish and the freedom of expression is here, more on PEN America and its work is here, and more on Penguin Random House is here.

Publishing Perspectives readers will recall that Markus Dohle, Nihar Malaviya’s predecessor as CEO at Penguin Random House, seeded the Dohle Book Defense Fund at PEN America in February 2022.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.