‘Censorship’: US publisher sues over Florida book restrictions

The lawsuit alleges a county in the Republican-led state is cracking down on access to books on race and LGBTQ identity.

A student reads a library book
Efforts to restrict access to books come amid efforts from Governor Ron DeSantis to combat so-called 'wokeness' in Florida [File: Rick Bowmer/AP Photo]

A writers’ group and a book publisher in the United States have sued a school district in the southern state of Florida over efforts to restrict the availability of books about race and LGBTQ identity in libraries.

The group PEN America and the publisher Penguin Random House announced the lawsuit on Wednesday, alleging that the Escambia County School District and its school board violated the First Amendment of the US Constitution by removing 10 books on race and gender.

“In Escambia County, state censors are spiriting books off shelves in a deliberate attempt to suppress diverse voices,”  Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said in a statement. “In a nation built on free speech, this cannot stand.”

The lawsuit is the latest challenge to a series of conservative laws spearheaded by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, some of which have targeted gay and transgender people as well as critical perspectives on race in the US.

DeSantis, expected to challenge former President Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican US presidential nomination, has sought to bolster his right-wing credentials among conservative voters.

On Wednesday, DeSantis signed laws banning gender-affirming care for transgender youth, restricting the use of gender-neutral pronouns in schools, and forcing transgender youth to use bathrooms based on the sex they were assigned at birth.

The governor has also championed laws restricting access to books on topics such as LGBTQ rights and Black history, positioning himself as a crusader against “wokeness”, a term used dismissively by some Republicans to describe issues of race, gender and sexuality.

Campaigns to restrict access to books discussing that subject matter have become increasingly common in Republican-led states across the country, and library groups say that 2022 saw a record number of efforts to ban books.

Democratic politicians have sought to capitalise on those efforts by portraying Republicans as extremists seeking to curtail ideas and lifestyles they disagree with.

“Around the country, MAGA extremists are lining up to take on those bedrock freedoms, cutting Social Security that you paid for your entire life, while cutting taxes for the very wealthy, dictating what healthcare decisions women can make, banning books and telling people who they can love,” Democratic President Joe Biden said in the April video that launched his 2024 re-election campaign.

The acronym MAGA refers to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) movement.

A February 2022 CBS poll found that more than 80 percent of respondents disagree with efforts to limit access to books that view US history with a critical lens and discuss sensitive issues of race.

The lawsuit in Florida states an art teacher objected to the books and asked for them to be removed. A district committee created to assess the suitability of library books recommended that they be kept in place but was overruled by the district, which then removed them.

The legal complaint alleges that, in every decision Escambia County has taken to remove a book, “the school district has sided with a challenger expressing openly discriminatory” opinions.

Not only do those removals therefore violate the First Amendment protections for free speech, but they also contradict the Fourteenth Amendment, which prevents discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation, the lawsuit argues.

“The targeted book removals we are seeing in Escambia County are blatantly unconstitutional attempts to silence and stigmatize,” Nadine Farid Johnson, managing director of PEN America Washington and Free Expression Programs, said in Wednesday’s press release.

“The government should not foster censorship by proxy, allowing one person to decide what ideas are out of bounds for all.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies