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Book ban lawsuit moves forward as Florida district removes over 1,000 titles

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(NEW YORK) — A federal judge has ruled that a lawsuit challenging book bans in Escambia County, Florida, can move forward on the same day the county released an updated list of more than 2,800 individual books that have been pulled from shelves for review.


U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell II ruled on Wednesday that book publisher Penguin Random House, free expression PEN America, authors, and families of Escambia County had standing to pursue their claims under the First Amendment because those protections are implicated when officials remove books based on ideology or viewpoint. However, they were denied to pursue the claims under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

“We are gratified that the Judge recognized that books cannot be removed from school library shelves simply because of the views they espouse, and are looking forward to moving forward with this case to protect the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs,” Lynn Oberlander of Ballard Spahr, who is representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

Escambia County has released a list of 2,812 books — totaling more than 1,500 titles — that have been pulled from shelves for “further review” of their compliance under House Bill 1069 which limits discussion of gender and sexual orientation in grade school as of Jan. 10. These books include “The World Book encyclopedia,” “100 Women Who Made History: Remarkable Women Who Shaped Our World,” “Africa (Cultural Atlas for Young People)” and more.

The previously released round-up of books to be reviewed included Merriam-Webster’s dictionary and Webster’s dictionary and thesaurus.

The lawsuit was brought forward in May 2023 by Penguin Random House, PEN America, authors and families of Escambia County who argue that the school board’s removal and restriction of books violates the First Amendment.

The lawsuit claims the county violated the First Amendment rights of the students, authors, and publishers by “removing books ‘based on ideological objections to their contents or disagreement with their messages or themes.'”

Several authors whose books have been impacted by book bans across the country, including David Levithan, George M. Johnson and Ashley Hope Pérez, are backing the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also alleges, that in every decision to remove a book, “the 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 Board argued in its motion to dismiss the case that it has not banned any books, rather it “‘removed from its own school libraries [books] that the Board had purchased for those libraries with Board funds. It [has] not prohibit[ed] anyone else from owning, possessing, or reading the book[s].'”

The school board claims it “has the ultimate authority to decide what books will be purchased and kept on the shelves of the schools in the district,” according to the motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

House Bill 1069 expanded the Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by critics from prekindergarten through grade 8. It was passed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May 2023.

From grades 9 through 12, such content must be “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

Recent legislation in Florida, including the Parental Rights in Education Bill and the Stop WOKE Act, have led to restrictions and removals of books across the state.

The Stop WOKE Act restricts lessons and training on race and diversity in schools and in the workplace, particularly anything that discusses privilege or oppression based on race. WOKE in the bill stands for “Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees.”

Between January 1 and August 31, 2023, the American Library Association recorded 695 attempts to ban library materials and services, affecting 1,915 different book titles. The organization said this marked a 20% increase from the same reporting period in 2022, which saw the highest number of book challenges since ALA began compiling the data more than 20 years ago.

Most of the book challenges in 2023 were against books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ community, according to the ALA.

To comply with HB 1069, Escambia County has subject books in school and classroom libraries to be reviewed by district book review committees and the school board.

In several cases, the books approved for use by the district book review committees have been rejected and removed or restricted by the school board. This includes the titles of “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson, “Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “Lucky” by Alice Sebold, “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, “Push” by Sapphire, and others.

Dozens of books that were challenged by community members were requested by one person, an English teacher at a high school in Escambia County. She cites “indoctrination,” “sexual content,” “violent language,” and “LGBTQ content” among her objections in the more than 100 complaints.

“Ensuring that students have access to books on a wide range of topics and that express a diversity of viewpoints is a core function of public education — preparing students to be thoughtful and engaged citizens,” said PEN America in a statement on the lawsuit.

Escambia County officials did not immediately respond to ABC News requests for comment.

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