Penguin Random House and 5 authors are suing a Florida school board over book bans

A row of books from Penguin Random House publisher are visible.

Penguin Random House, the largest publisher in the U.S., has sued a Florida county school board over its decisions to ban and restrict access to books. Joining the lawsuit are five authors, two parents of students and the advocacy group PEN America. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A new federal lawsuit alleges that recent decisions by officials in a Florida county to ban and restrict access to books in school libraries violates constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection under the law.

Over the past year, officials in western Florida’s Escambia County have banned more than a dozen books in the county school district’s libraries and classrooms in response to a wave of challenges by conservative teachers and parents.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, alleges that school officials acted in defiance of existing policies and a review board’s recommendations when they removed books, and that the removals have disproportionately affected books that address racism and LGBTQ relationships.

Leading the suit is the writers’ advocacy group PEN America and Penguin Random House, the largest publisher in the U.S. Joining the suit are five authors whose books have been challenged and two parents of students currently attending an elementary school in the district, which includes the city of Pensacola.

The plaintiffs say the lawsuit is the first of its kind in addressing a new nationwide wave of conservative-led efforts to ban books from schools and libraries that activists say are sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate for young readers.

Last year, an Escambia County high school teacher challenged 116 books available in school district libraries over what she characterized as “explicit sexual content, graphic language, themes, vulgarity and political pushes.”

Others filed similar challenges, bringing the total number of currently challenged books to 197, plaintiffs say.

The Escambia County school board has ordered 10 books to be removed from some school libraries, the lawsuit states, including the frequently challenged novels The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. More than 150 of the remaining challenged books are on restricted access until a review can be completed, according to the complaint.

Members of the Escambia County Public Schools Board did not respond to NPR’s requests for comment. Last month, the board announced it would pause book challenges indefinitely.

According to the American Library Association, the number of reported challenges to books doubled in 2022, and the number of unique titles facing challenges jumped 40% from 2021.

“It was time to really call it out in detail,” says Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, which tracks book bans. “We’ve come together to say we need the courts to step in and uphold our constitutional rights.”

One of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs is Ashley Hope Pérez, the author of Out Of Darkness, a young adult novel about a teenage love affair between a Mexican-American girl and a Black boy in Texas in the 1930s. The book has been challenged and access is currently restricted within the school district’s libraries.

Pérez says her book has been targeted by book removal groups, including Moms for Liberty, that offer talking points for parents around the country to petition local school districts for its removal.

“There’s little evidence of having actually engaged with the books themselves and a lot of copying and pasting. So you see the same typos, for example,” Pérez says.

“Young people do not want sanitized narratives,” she says. “They want opportunities to talk about difficult issues and to imagine lives that are different than their own.”

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