Authors and Publishers Sue Florida School District Over Draconian Book Bans

Publishing giant Penguin Random House joined authors, parents, and activists to argue that the district’s removal of books about race, sex, and gender violates the First Amendment.
Image: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Yesterday, a group of concerned authors and activists filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Florida against Escambia County School District and School Board that asks for censored books to be returned to the school library. 

Parents of the school district were supported in the suit by authors, including George M. Johnson, David Levithan, and Kyle Lukoff, whose books have been frequent subjects of banning, along with free expression organization PEN America and publisher giant Penguin Random House. 


The lawsuit alleges that the Escambia County School District and School Board are responsible for removing and restricting access to books having to do with race, racism, and LGBTQ+ identities against the recommendations of the district review committee charged with evaluating the challenges. The plaintiffs say these actions, which have led to viewpoint discrimination and violations of the right to receive information, are in direct violation of the First Amendment. 

Nadine Farid Johnson, counsel and managing director of PEN America Washington and Free Expression Programs, says it’s a first-of-its-kind challenge to unlawful censorship over children’s right to read. 

“We know that the First Amendment tells us the government cannot be in the business of censoring books, because officials disagree with the ideas and omissions that they contain,” Johnson told Motherboard. “I think it's really important to recognize that to call it out for the unconstitutional act that it is and to seek relief accordingly.”

The lawsuit further contends that the school district and board are violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution because the books being singled out are disproportionately books by non-white and/or LGBTQ+ authors, and often address themes or topics related to race or LGBTQ+ identity. 

“It’s important for folks to understand that it’s really not about the books, and it’s not really even about them being worried about kids reading the books,” plaintiff in the case Ashley Hope Pérez, another author whose books had been moved to a restricted area of Escambia school libraries, told Motherboard. “It’s a strategy for signaling disapproval of certain identities.” 

A spokesperson for the Escambia County School District declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Since at least 2021, self-proclaimed “parental rights” groups have been swarming school districts nationwide with challenges to books that center representation of race, gender, and sexuality. As Motherboard has reported, these groups have made it possible for one person’s complaint to lead to dozens or thousands of books being pulled from library shelves without due process. One major moment that adds momentum to the plaintiff’s suit had to do with Northview High School English teacher Vicki Baggett, who has challenged over 100 books. The complaint details how the English teacher tried for months to get young adult books like The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky removed from curriculum using PEN America data that the book is one of the most removed books in the country as proof of it needing to be removed. 

“I am so insulted on the behalf of the 14 to 18 year olds in this country that these adults are presuming to know better than they do what they're ready for,” Pérez added. “The school board's responsibility is to educate young people [and] to put their interests first. And this pattern of caving to right wing pressure to remove books does not put young people first.”