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PEN America And Penguin Sue Over Florida’s Book Bans

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Penguin Random House, PEN America, authors, and two parents are suing a Florida school board over its banning of books that include themes of racism or LGBTQ issues—marking a new salvo in the fight against censorship in the Sunshine State.

While the federal lawsuit doesn’t name Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the movement to abolish certain books and curriculum related to race and gender identity have thrived under his watch. Filed on Wednesday, the complaint follows another high-profile attack on public education in Florida: A fifth-grade teacher in Hernando County is facing a state investigation for showing her class a Disney movie that featured a gay character.

The lawsuit says it is challenging the Escambia County School District and school board’s decisions to restrict and remove books from its public school libraries “based on their disagreement with the ideas expressed in those books.”

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It also singles out the influence of Moms for Liberty, a far-right “parental rights” group that’s launched a concerted nationwide effort to ban books it finds objectionable, as well as Vicki Baggett, a local high school teacher who’s led the charge on removing titles.

“This trend of calling for the removal of books from school libraries on ideological grounds has spread throughout the country and has been spearheaded by certain national organizations, such as the Florida-based ‘Moms for Liberty,’” the complaint says. “Moms for Liberty is a politically conservative organization that is focused on combating what it describes as the ‘woke’ influence in public schools.

“The organization shares and disseminates lists of books it finds politically objectionable, and urges individuals to seek the removal of those books from school libraries.”

The lawsuit alleges that Escambia County officials “have repeatedly ignored their existing policies” for reviewing challenges to books and overruled district review committee recommendations to ban the reading materials—decisions that “have disproportionately targeted books by or about people of color and/or LGBTQ people.”

“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,” the lawsuit argues, adding that the district “seeks to bar books critics view as too ‘woke.’”

The plaintiffs include nonprofit writers group PEN America; authors Sarah Brannen, George M. Johnson, David Levithan, Kyle Lukoff, and Ashley Hope Perez, whose books are targeted for removal in the district; parents Lindsay Durtschi and Ann Novakowski; and Penguin Random House, the country’s largest book publisher.

A spokesperson for Escambia County Public Schools declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. One school board member told The Daily Beast that an attorney advised them not to comment on the case.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Durtschi didn’t blame the teacher for the book-banning frenzy. “This is one person’s fault, and it’s not Vicki’s, it is Ron DeSantis’s,” said Durtschi. “And I think that that needs to be said. Because if it wasn’t Vicki Baggett, it would just be somebody else.”

“Today it’s telling me what to allow my kids not to read. Tomorrow it could be, ‘Don’t pack this for lunch’ or ‘They can’t wear those shorts,’” added Durtschi, an optometrist and mother of two elementary schoolers. “Fascism starts early.”

She pointed to other censorship taking root in Florida, including the state’s rejection of an AP African American studies course. “They’re impeding upon my freedom and that’s not just in what my kids can read and what they can’t read,” Durtschi said. “It’s gonna be a lot more than that.”

“Our access to information should not be politically bound whatsoever.”

Novakowski told The Daily Beast that she was shocked that Escambia County was banning books for early readers, in particular a book about penguins. “When did it become okay to make parents’ decisions for us?” she asked.

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“One of my fears is when does it stop?” said Novakowski, who is an analyst for a financial institution. “They’ve been moving fairly quickly in choosing to ban books. It very much feels like we went from zero to 60 just within the span of a few weeks.

“And if this is how aggressive they’re going to be with books that are really non-controversial for early readers, what’s next?”

The lawsuit—which argues the school district and board violated the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause—asks the court to restore the banned books to school libraries and stop the removal of others.

It’s far from the first time readers have initiated litigation to keep books. The complaint refers to Long Island, New York student Steven Pico’s landmark lawsuit against his local school board for removing titles like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Richard Wright’s Black Boy. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which in the 1980s ruled the board couldn’t ban books in a “narrowly partisan or political manner.”

Similar lawsuits are continuing to make headlines. Last month, South Carolina parents and a local NAACP chapter sued the Pickens County School District for banning Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. An ACLU lawyer who filed the suit told a local newspaper, “You know, it’s not just politics. It’s also an all-White school board removing ideas about race on the basis that they don’t like those ideas.”

According to the Escambia complaint, the district has automatically restricted any challenged book by citing Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education Act,” more commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” despite that the law applies to classroom instruction rather than library books.

The local drive to remove books allegedly began with Baggett, the high school teacher, who filled out a “Request for the Reconsideration of Educational Media” form for Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Baggett did not return messages seeking comment. On her Facebook page, the educator has railed against supposedly sexual content in school library books.

In one April post, Baggett shared the cover of the book Same-Sex Parents (Topics to Talk About) by Holly Duhig and wrote: “Know what your children are reading. These books are currently in Escambia County, Florida Public School Elementary Libraries, Grades Pre-K-5th grade. Just found these this week.”

When one commenter wrote, “Send these to our Governor and see if he will stop it,” Baggett replied, “I have been. He is involved. It is a long process, but he is aware.” The commenter added, “Keep it up. God has to be proud of you,” and Baggett followed up with, “Prayers are so needed in this battle.”

The lawsuit says that “Baggett would later admit that she had not heard of Wallflower prior to her efforts to prevent it from being read in the School District, making clear that the book came to her attention because it was one of the books frequently targeted as part of the nationwide book-removal movement.”

After a review panel voted to keep Wallflower as optional study material, Baggett appealed the decision in a letter to the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and copied other officials including Gov. DeSantis.

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In her letter, Baggett asked, “What does it mean when a district orders entire classroom sets of books for teachers to use in their classrooms as a novel study and that book has sections on masturbation, beastiality, and teenage sex and lesbianism?” (Some of the passages in question are brief references such as: “There was a guy named Carl Burns and everyone called him C.B. And one day C.B. got so drunk at a party that he tried to ‘fuck’ the host’s dog.”)

The author of the coming-of-age novel, which explores sexuality, drug use, sexual assault and other themes, has spoken out against such criticisms leading to bans of his work, saying, “The entire book is a blueprint for survival. It’s for people who have been through terrible things and need hope and support.”

“The idea of taking two pages out of context and creating an atmosphere as perverse is offensive to me—deeply offensive,” Chbosky said.

In another letter, the complaint says, Baggett referred to a “parental book rating” that seemed to have come from a website called Book Looks, which reportedly is tied to Moms for Liberty. “While Book Looks disclaims affiliation with Moms for Liberty, it was founded by a member of, and uses the same rating criteria as, the Moms for Liberty chapter of Brevard County, Florida,” the lawsuit states.

While district officials continued reviewing Wallflower, Baggett turned her focus to school libraries instead of classroom curriculum, naming 116 books that she argued “should be evaluated based on explicit sexual content, graphic language, themes, vulgarity and political pushes.” The lawsuit says many of the titles Baggett targeted addressed “LGBTQ themes and/or deal with issues of race or racism.”

Among them were Raina Telgemeier’s Drama for one character’s gay identity; the non-fiction book Race and Policing in Modern America by Duchess Harris; and Mark Weakland’s When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball—a picture book that touches on the Black Olympic athlete’s childhood in the segregated South.

Baggett’s objections to Drama, the lawsuit says, included a list of quotes that were also cited by the Book Looks website. “The same pattern exists for numerous other books Baggett challenged,” the complaint alleges. “In some instances, typos from the Book Looks website were carried over into her challenges.”

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By September 2022, Baggett completed “Request for Reconsideration of Educational Media” forms for more than 100 books. “As of now,” the lawsuit states, “the total number of books challenged in the School District—by Baggett or someone else—has reached 197.”

As a result of Escambia County’s interpretation of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the complaint argues, “challenged books that merely recognize the existence of same-sex relationships or transgender persons are being subject to restricted access for the pendency of the—often indefinite—review period.”

Brannen’s picture book about a gay marriage, Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, has been off shelves since it was challenged in March 2023, the filing says.

Meanwhile, Matt de la Pena’s Milo Imagines the World, which includes an image of two women getting married, was also found to be in violation of the Parental Rights Law.

The school board has removed 10 books, and according to the lawsuit, in each case, the school board ignored the district’s review committee that the books were suitable for students. “To date, there has not been a single instance in which the School Board has rejected a Baggett challenge,” the lawsuit says.

Wallflower was banned in November. In February, the board voted to ban All Boys Aren’t Blue by Johnson, a plaintiff; Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson; and When Aidan Became a Brother by Plaintiff Lukoff.

A month later, the board removed New Kid by Jerry Craft; Drama by the plaintiff Telgemeier; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; and Amy Reed’s The Nowhere Girls. And in April, the board banned Push by Sapphire and Lucky by Alice Sebold.

“Indeed, the School District and School Board have consistently acceded to, and ratified, Baggett’s blatantly political and message-based objections,” the complaint argues.

Baggett took issue with Tango, a 2005 picture book about Central Park Zoo penguins Roy and Silo, who incubated an egg and raised a baby penguin. According to the lawsuit, “Baggett’s sole listed reason for objecting to Tango was disagreement with its message. She asserted that the book was serving an ‘LGBTQ agenda using penguins.’”

In a challenge to All Boys Aren’t Blue, Baggett commented that the book was “indoctrination” and included “LGBTQ content.”

Her opposition to When Aidan Became a Brother, a picture book about a young transgender boy whose family is welcoming a new baby, notes that the work “LGBTQ introduction,” and “not age appropriate.”

Baggett is also accused of targeting New Kid, a graphic novel about a 12-year-old Black boy who enrolls in a private school, for including what she called “race-baiting” and “anti-whiteness” and promoting a “woke agenda.”

Novakowski told The Daily Beast that it’s difficult not to see the book bans as “politically motivated.” The night before her lawsuit was filed, the Escambia County School Board fired Superintendent Dr. Tim Smith, who faced pressure to unilaterally ban books.

“All I really know at this moment is that when my daughter goes to school, there are books that she will not be able to check out from the library,” Novakowski said. “And that decision of what she can or cannot read was not made by her school librarian, and it wasn’t made by me, and it wasn’t made by expert educators.

“It was made by a small-town committee, and that just doesn’t sit right with me.”

Durtschi said that the school board’s banning policy was apparently adopted in response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and pointed out that Baggett’s stated opposition to many books was due to supposed “LGBTQ indoctrination.” (Baggett has also challenged books for “shaming” white people, telling journalist Judd Legum that she challenged When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball because she believed it violated DeSantis’s Stop WOKE Act, which blocks the teaching of Critical Race Theory. Legum also reported that Baggett had Confederate flag imagery on her Facebook, which she said she was not “ashamed” of because she was a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy.)

“It is very obvious the things that are going on here,” Durtschi told The Daily Beast, adding that “there’s a lot of misinformation” and “fear mongering” around books.

“And so instead of arguing with them, you have to take legal action because what they’re doing is, in fact, illegal,” Durtschi said.

“It’s one thing for you to say, ‘I don’t want my child to read that.’ But if you take a book out of the library, you’re telling me that my child can’t read that either.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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