PEN America, Penguin Random House sue school district over book bans

By ANTHONY IZAGUIRRE (Associated Press)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Writers’ group PEN America and publisher Penguin Random House sued a Florida school district Wednesday over its removal of books about race and LGBTQ+ identities, the latest opposition to a policy central to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda as he prepares to run for president.

The federal lawsuit alleges the Escambia County School District and its School Board are violating the First Amendment through the removal of 10 books from library shelves.

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The case does not name DeSantis as a defendant though the Republican governor has championed policies that allow the censorship and challenging of books based on whether they are appropriate for children in schools, causing national uproar.

DeSantis, who is expected to announce his presidential candidacy in the coming days, has leaned heavily into cultural divides on race, sexual orientation and gender as he moves to win support from conservative voters who decide Republican primary elections.

“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 rights,” Nihar Malaviya, CEO of Penguin Random House, said in a statement.

Escambia County school officials did not immediately return a request for comment.

PEN America, which has tracked school book bans, advocates for literary freedoms and has a membership of 7,500 writing professionals, including authors whose books have been removed or restricted in the school district. Penguin Random House, a massive publisher, has published books that have been removed or restricted by the district.

The lawsuit says the removals stem from objections from one language arts teacher in the county, and in each case the school board voted to remove the books over recommendations from a district review committee that deemed them educationally suitable.

The teacher’s formal objections to the books appear to draw on materials compiled by a website that creates reports on books it deems ideologically unsuitable for children, according to the lawsuit.

In one example cited in the lawsuit, the teacher admitted she had never heard of the book “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky but filed an objection form to the novel that contained specific excerpts and phrasing from the book ban website.

Among the other removed books are “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “The Nowhere Girls” by Amy Reed and “Lucky” by Alice Sebold. The lawsuit said more than 150 additional books are under review by the school board.

“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,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. “The law demands that the Escambia County School District put removed or restricted books back on library shelves where they belong.”

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