Joint Statement: Judge Rules Lawsuit Challenging Escambia County, Florida Book Ban Can Move Forward
Ed. Note: We will update this post with media reports about the ruling as they become available.
In a hearing Wednesday at the federal courthouse in Pensacola, U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell II heard oral arguments from both sides on why the case should or should not be dismissed. Wetherell, explaining his decision to let the case to move forward, said that while the school board reserves the power to remove books from the district for legitimate reasons, they cannot remove them because they do not align with their moral beliefs. While the school library should be diverse in the “marketplace of ideas,” it is ultimately up to the parents to decide what is appropriate for their own family, he said.
Escambia County Public Schools and the Escambia County School Board have 28 days to file a response to the judge’s ruling.
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During Wednesday’s hearing, Wetherell asked why the district didn’t allow for a “marketplace of ideas” in school libraries.
“Why shouldn’t libraries have ‘Mein Kampf’ and Anne Frank’s Diary?” he asked.
When the state argued students can be impressionable, the judge interjected “Isn’t that the parent’s job — to say ‘You have this book (about two dads) and that’s not how God made us.’? Why is one parent able to control what everyone reads?”
A majority of the challenged or removed books in Escambia County have LGBTQ themes and/or characters. Some feature stories about Black and brown characters, and hundreds of challenges came from one woman — Santa Rosa County mother and Escambia County teacher Vicki Baggett.
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From a Joint Statement by:
- PEN America
- Ballard Spahr
- Protect Democracy
- Penguin Random House
In a hearing today, U.S. District Judge Kent Wetherell issued a ruling that the first-of-its-kind federal lawsuit against Escambia County School Board for improperly removing books from library shelves can proceed. The judge decided that the plaintiffs in the case – including PEN America, Penguin Random House, banned authors and parents – have standing to pursue their claims under the First Amendment. Importantly, Judge Wetherell also found that the state’s argument that its decisions to ban books are immune from the First Amendment hold no merit.
In response, Katie Blankenship, Director, PEN America, Florida, issued the following statement:
“Today, we urged the court to vindicate the Constitutional rights of students, parents, authors and publishers. We are heartened that Judge Wetherell agreed and that our case can proceed. These books need to be returned to the shelves where they belong, and every day that students are refused access is a day they’re not getting the high-quality education they deserve. This case cuts to the heart of who we are as a country, and for the sake of our children and the future of our democracy, it’s critical that we adhere to the language of the First Amendment and the precedents of our federal courts.”
“We are gratified that the Judge recognized that books cannot be removed from school library shelves simply because of the views they espouse, and are looking forward to moving forward with this case to protect the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs,” said Lynn Oberlander of Ballard Spahr, who is representing the plaintiffs.
“After targeting books centering people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals and ignoring its own review committees’ recommendations, the government baldly asserted that this could not be viewpoint discrimination because the First Amendment does not apply to school libraries,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal, Protect Democracy counsel. “Today’s ruling makes clear that they are wrong.”
Judge Wetherell ruled that the government speech doctrine does not apply in this case and made clear that First Amendment protections are implicated when officials remove books based on ideology or viewpoint. Although he denied a claim under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, the First Amendment claims are sufficient for the case to continue and to vindicate the rights of plaintiffs and students throughout Escambia County.
The books targeted in Escambia County include classic literary works such as The Bluest Eye, Slaughterhouse-Five and The Kite Runner, and run the gamut from picture books to young adult titles. The authors involved in the suit, all of whom have either already had their books removed by the district and/or restricted from student access, 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.
Since the lawsuit was filed last spring, the district has removed additional books due to the passage of new state laws, including HB 1069. Earlier this week, PEN America released a list of more than 1,600 titles which have been banned pending investigation in Escambia County. The list, which was originally acquired by the Florida Freedom to Read Project, includes five dictionaries.
See Also: Complete Case Docket and Filings
About Gary Price
Gary Price (email@example.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. He earned his MLIS degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Price has won several awards including the SLA Innovations in Technology Award and Alumnus of the Year from the Wayne St. University Library and Information Science Program. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com.