Opinion DeSantis’s book banners face a tough new foe: Angry moms with lawyers
"In one of the big political surprises of 2023, pockets of stiff resistance have sprung up to defend teachers, textbooks, novels and libraries against censorship efforts across the country. This liberal counter-mobilization is substantially less organized than the right’s culture-warring, but it has great untapped potential for Democrats.
These efforts just took an important turn, with a lawsuit filed by Florida parents in federal court Wednesday to try to stop book bans in school libraries in Escambia County, red-leaning terrain in the state’s panhandle. The suit could become a model to challenge bans across Florida and elsewhere.
What’s striking is that this lawsuit is being brought by mothers who want their kids exposed to ideas that the censors have decreed are unsuitable. The suit is spearheaded by PEN America and is joined by several writers whose books have been banned, along with Penguin Random House, which published them.
“It’s one thing for you to say, ‘I don’t want my child to read this,’” Lindsay Durtschi, a mom and plaintiff in the lawsuit, told me. “But if you take it from the library altogether, you’re also telling me that my child can’t read this.”
The lawsuit argues that a slew of book removals in the county violate the First Amendment by denying parents and students access to information for ideological purposes. Citing court precedent, the complaint argues that, while administrators do have some control over what appears in public school libraries, this doesn’t permit official suppression of disfavored ideas.
“This case is important,” Scott Wilkens, senior counsel at the Knight First Amendment Institute, told me. “It may place constitutional limits on the authority of school boards to remove books from school libraries.”
That could deal a blow to the book-banning mania that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has unleashed. Across the state, right-wing activists are citing various of his laws and directives as the basis for getting books removed from school libraries. More than 500 were targeted for removal in the 2021-2022 school year, according to an analysis by PEN America.
The Escambia County school board voted to remove “And Tango Makes Three,” about two male penguins who raise a penguin chick. The lawsuit cites evidence suggesting that a primary reason for the removal was the book’s depiction of two males raising a baby.
The board also removed “When Aidan Became a Brother,” about a transgender boy whose family has a new baby, which a local right-wing activist had condemned as “LGBTQ introduction.” And the board removed another book, “Drama,” which depicts a boy dressed as a girl kissing another boy on stage, in response to similar objections.
None of these books contained age-inappropriate sexual conduct, the lawsuit argues, noting that the removals were “ideological” responses to “contents and themes.” The suit cites many other examples of books targeted on ideological grounds, such as the promotion of a “woke agenda.”
In an important twist, the lawsuit doesn’t directly target DeSantis’s laws or directives. Instead, it argues that the removals themselves are unconstitutional. If the courts agree, this could create clearer prohibitions on school boards banning books for ideological reasons, regardless of what fig leaf rationale they cite.
By attacking ideologically driven bans themselves as unconstitutional, the lawsuit could create a weapon for parents to use against book removals throughout Florida and beyond. “We believe that a vindication of the rights of the plaintiffs would go a long way legally toward halting the momentum that such efforts presently have,” Paul Safier, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told me.
A victory in this lawsuit, Durtschi says, would make it clearer that the book-banners are really out to marginalize people and ideas. Parents need to take a stand now, lest the censors grow even more emboldened, she said.
“I worry about where this goes next,” Durtschi told me. “This is just the beginning of censorship on a much larger level in our public schools.”
The counter-mobilization against the right’s culture-war extremism has room to grow, giving Democrats an opening. In his reelection campaign video, President Biden attacked book bans, suggesting Democrats believe reactionary overreach motivates their base and alienates suburban swing voters.
But a deeper contest of values is at stake. As Jennifer C. Berkshire and Jack Schneider argue in the New Republic, the Republicans censoring school discussion of sex, gender and race are trying to circumscribe the core role that public education plays in developing future citizens in a tolerant, multiracial liberal democracy.
Democrats must affirmatively argue that public education should play this role, and explain this is a key reason this battle really matters. A victory in this lawsuit would give that mission a big boost."