Pen America & Penguin-Random House Sue Florida School District Over Book Bans

Interview with Nadine Farid Johnson, managing director of PEN America Washington and Free Expression Programs, conducted by Scott Harris

Donald Trump faces multiple serious criminal indictments as he battles 12 other candidates to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, but another battle is being waged across the country in advance of the 2024 election.  Under the guise of “parental rights,” right-wing Republicans and other extremist groups have descended on school boards, city council meetings and political forums to demand the banning of books in public schools and libraries, as well as the censorship of history and literature in school curricula.

Targets of the GOP culture war’s repressive campaign are books mostly dealing with the issues of race, gender and sexuality, focused mainly on LGBTQ themes. When it comes to the teaching of U.S. history, many of these same groups demand the censorship of curricula dealing with America’s slave era past, Jim Crow discriminatory laws, contemporary structural racism and inequality.

While pro-democracy parents groups rally to defend free expression in public schools across the nation, the group Pen America — along with publisher Penguin Random House, authors and parents of children affected by book bans — filed a lawsuit in federal court on May 17 asking for books banned by Florida’s Escambia County School District to be returned to school library shelves. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Nadine Farid Johnson, managing director of PEN America’s Washington office, who explains the goals of the lawsuit and the larger fight being waged nationwide against censorship and the suppression of free speech.

NADINE FARID JOHNSON: So Escambia County is really at the forefront of much of the book banning that we’ve seen not only in Florida, but around the country. When the Escambia County School Board began to remove books from school libraries, they did so because the books addressed issues of race, racism and LGBTQ identities. And so Pen America joined with Penguin-Random House, and with authors and parents and students to file suit to contest these book bans as being unconstitutional.

SCOTT HARRIS: Describe a bit about what kinds of books are being banned, how these decisions are being made and the crux of the matter in terms of why you believe this to be unconstitutional.

NADINE FARID JOHNSON: Absolutely. So what we’re seeing in terms of being banned, as I mentioned, most of the books focused on issues of race, racism and LGBTQ+ identity. There are hundreds of books that have been challenged.

I can give you a few names of ones that have been banned or restricted in some way. We have All Boys Aren’t Blue, by George M. Johnson, who we are privileged to have as a fellow plaintiff. Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah Maas. Draw Me a Star by Eric Carle. Empire Stories by Sarah Maas. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. The list just goes on.

And what we’ve seen here is actually a pretty calculated attempt by actually one individual in the district who began to file a complaint a little over a year and a half ago, I think it was in spring of 2022 and she would file challenges to the books.

Now, Escambia County actually had a process. When I say county, I mean the school district, they actually had a process by which book challenges were reviewed. They were taken under consideration. And then a committee would come forth and state whether they believe the challenge should be upheld or not.

And in this case, what we found was that even though the committee that was charged with reviewing the challenges was coming back and saying the challenges should not be upheld, the district was nevertheless choosing to remove or otherwise restrict access to the books.

And so ultimately, our decision to sue was based on, as I mentioned was based on the Constitution. We filed the First Amendment and 14th Amendment causes of action, turning to not only the right to receive information, which is part of the rights of the First Amendment and that inured to the benefit of the students.

But also, we wanted to point out the viewpoint discrimination that was happening with respect to these books, because what we know from court jurisprudence, Scott, is that school administrators do have significant discretion to determine the content of what’s in the school library, but they cannot exercise that discretion in a manner that is deemed to be political or partisan and so what that means in practice is that the First Amendment bars a school district from removing books from school libraries or restricting access to them based on a political or ideological disagreement with the ideas in the books. And that we were seeing happening in Escambia County.

SCOTT HARRIS: Nadine, how widespread are the pattern of book banning across the country? Primarily in Republican districts, Republican school districts in Republican states? You know, I’ve heard a lot of anecdotal information about book burnings here and there and everywhere, but I’m sure Pen America has looked into the kind of hard numbers. What are we talking about when we’re talking about the book banning that seems to have taken hold of the Republican party?

NADINE FARID JOHNSON: So I want to share this in a way that hopefully speaks to the depth and breadth of what we are seeing here. We are talking about over four million students in the U.S. who are affected by these bans. It has happened in 37 different states. So while you are correct that there has been most of these bans are based in a particular type of ideology, we are really seeing it happening all across the country in different pockets all across the country.

We have calculated now in the last school year, I guess in the 2021, 2022 school year, we found over 2,500 instances of book bans taking place that affected over 1,600 titles. So if you’re thinking about this in terms of just the numbers of people who are affected, I mentioned the 4 million students. Obviously, their parents are also affected, the authors are affected and the translators of some of these books are affected when there is the translation that the artists that are providing their material for the books, it really does affect not only, again, the right to receive this information, but also the the livelihoods and ability of these authors, translators and artists to be able to share their work.

And of course, that’s not even touching upon the teachers and school librarians whose professional opinions are being disregarded in this fever to ban books across the country and their ability to actually engage in the pedagogical work that they’re seeking to do with the students. We’ve been very, very steeped in this. We have been following the data, doing the research and providing information of people.

We have resources on our website for librarians, for writers, for others who are interested in getting involved. We would encourage you to do so. And we thank you.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Nadine Farid Johnson (18:00) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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