Penguin Random House and authors sue Florida school district over anti-LGBTQ+ book bans

Penguin Random House, alongside authors, parents and a free speech group, have filed a lawsuit against a school district in Florida for book bans related to race and LGBTQ+ topics. 

Legal action has been taken against the Escambia County School District and the Escambia County School Board in Pensacola, Florida for violating the First Amendment rights of students, authors and publishers by removing books from its libraries “based on ideological objections to their contents or disagreement with their messages or themes”. 

In addition to this, the lawsuit also claims the school district violated the Equal Protection Clause of the constitution because the books removed were “disproportionately” by “non-white and/or LGBTQ authors, or which address topics related to race or LGBTQ identity”. 

The lawsuit comes as Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis seeks to crack down on all things LGBTQ+ and ‘woke’ in the sunshine state, ahead of a predicted 2024 presidential run.  

The contentious GOP lawmaker has sought to ban discussions of gender and sexuality in schools, remove LGBTQ+ and racial books, bar federal funding for diversity training, roll back gender affirming care, ban drag shows, allow medical discrimination and restrict abortion.

Alongside the publishing house, action is being brought by PEN America – a non-profit group focused on free speech in literature – five authors whose works have been removed and two parents whose children attend school in the district. 

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The authors involved in the lawsuit 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. All of whom have either had their books removed or restricted from student access. 

In the complaint, the plaintiffs state school libraries are where youngsters discover “new areas of interest” and “engage in voluntary inquiry outside the context of required curriculum”, thus making them an essential part of the “exchange of ideas”.

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The removal of books which predominantly focus on race and LGBTQ+ topics are part of an “ideologically driven campaign to push certain ideas out of schools”, the group claim. 

The complaint reads: “The School District and the School Board are depriving students of access to a wide range of viewpoints, and depriving the authors of the removed and restricted books of the opportunity to engage with readers and disseminate their ideas to their intended audiences. 

“Such viewpoint discrimination violates the First Amendment.” 

Censorship a “direct threat to democracy”

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

“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.”

Pérez, author of historical young adult novel Out of Darkness which has been banned by the school district, said as a former high school English teacher she knows “how important libraries are” and if a “a book isn’t in [students] school library, it might as well not exist.”

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“Young readers in Escambia schools and across the nation deserve a complete and honest education, one that provides them with full access in libraries to a wide range of literature that reflects varied viewpoints and that explores the diversity of human experiences,” she said.

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