Penguin Random House sues Florida school district over book ban

Penguin Random House is suing a Florida school district for banning several of its books, in the latest pushback by companies and organisations against “anti-woke” actions by US political conservatives.

The publisher joined forces with Pen America and a group of affected authors after it claimed the Escambia County School Board “unlawfully removes or restricts access to books about race, racism, and LGBTQ+ identities”.

The district, which encompasses the city of Pensacola in Florida’s west and borders Alabama, withdrew a series of books including works by Penguin authors Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut and Khaled Hosseini.

Penguin’s lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal actions after Florida politicians led by Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor and probable contender in the 2024 US presidential race, endorsed measures constraining teaching in schools and colleges and limiting broader efforts including among employers to support diversity.

Walt Disney has become the most prominent organisation to sue Florida, with the media group claiming the state’s retaliation for its stance on DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” law violated its constitutional rights. Free speech organisations including Fire and Pen America have also sought injunctions against a range of recent legislation in Florida and other US states.

Penguin, which is requesting restoration of the books to libraries plus cost, said the litigation was the first such it has undertaken. But in co-operation with Pen, it is exploring similar actions in other states that have taken similar measures.

“Books have the capacity to change lives for the better, and students in particular deserve equitable access to a wide range of perspective,” Nihar Malaviya, Penguin Random House chief executive, said. “Censorship, in the form of book bans like those enacted by Escambia County, are a direct threat to democracy and our constitutional rights.”

Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of Pen America said: “In Escambia County, state censors are spiriting books off shelves in a deliberate attempt to silence pluralism and diversity. In a nation built on free speech, this cannot stand.”

Since January 2021, her organisation has tracked 306 “educational gag order bills” introduced in 45 US states, while 22 have become law in 16 states. It has identified 4,000 individual bans from July 2021 to December 2022.

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