Federal Judge Allows Lawsuit Against Escambia County School District’s Book Ban to Continue, Protecting Free Speech Rights

Pensacola, Florida – A federal judge has denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit that claims the Escambia County school district violated free speech rights by removing and restricting books in school libraries. The lawsuit, filed by PEN America, Penguin Random House, five authors, and seven parents, seeks the return of all challenged and banned library books to the shelves.

During a hearing at the federal courthouse in Pensacola, U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell II listened to arguments from both sides regarding the dismissal of the case. Wetherell ultimately decided to move the case forward, stating that while the school board has the authority to remove books for legitimate reasons, they cannot do so simply because the content does not align with their moral beliefs. Wetherell emphasized that it is the responsibility of parents to determine what is appropriate for their own children.

Escambia County Public Schools and the Escambia County School Board now have 28 days to respond to the judge’s ruling. This decision allows the case to potentially proceed to a jury trial. The plaintiffs have requested injunctive relief to restore the removed books to libraries and prevent further removal or restrictions. Additionally, they are seeking reimbursement for legal costs and other expenses.

The lawsuit highlights the contentious removal of two books, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George Johnson and “When Aidan Became a Brother” by Kyle Lukoff, from all district libraries in February. The plaintiffs argue that Escambia County Public Schools has systematically excluded certain ideas by removing or restricting books for an indefinite period of time.

According to the lawsuit, approximately 60% of the 154 removed or restricted books address themes related to race or LGBTQ identity, or feature non-white and/or LGBTQ characters. The plaintiffs claim that these removal efforts disproportionately target minority communities and authors.

The lawsuit filed by PEN America is a groundbreaking challenge to unlawful censorship. It asserts that students’ exposure to diverse viewpoints is being limited and argues that the school district’s actions violate the First Amendment and 14th Amendment protections. While Judge Wetherell allowed the First Amendment claim to proceed, he ruled that the 14th Amendment claim was not applicable.

After the judge’s ruling, Katie Blankenship, director of PEN America Florida, expressed satisfaction with the decision. She emphasized that it was a major win for the students, professionals, and the Constitution.

The lawsuit against Escambia County also names Vicki Baggett, a teacher responsible for initiating over 100 book challenges in 2022. The lawsuit quotes Baggett’s critiques, including her objections to books with “LGBTQ introduction,” “LGBTQ agenda,” “LGBTQ content,” and “anti-whiteness.” The plaintiffs argue that these challenges contribute to the overall exclusion of diverse ideas from school libraries.

Florida has become a focal point for book removal efforts, with over 500 books permanently or temporarily removed by June 2022. Escambia County has been at the center of these removals. The school district has argued that it has the authority to decide which books are allowed in schools, citing state law HB 1069, which establishes statewide practices and policies for school library book content.

In conclusion, the lawsuit against the Escambia County school district will proceed to a potential jury trial, as a federal judge denied a motion to dismiss. The plaintiffs, including PEN America and authors, allege that the removal and restriction of books in school libraries violate free speech rights. The case raises concerns about limited exposure to diverse viewpoints and potential violations of the First and 14th Amendments. The outcome of this lawsuit could have broader implications for book censorship in schools.