Dictionaries, thesauruses, the Guinness Book of World Records, numerous National Geographic science books, “Anne Frank—The Diary of A Young Girl,” “Schindler’s List”—you won’t find these or over 1,600 other titles on the shelves of school libraries in Escambia County, a Florida school district.
Book removals for “further review”—a process that has no mandated time limit—have become the norm in school districts across the country—as have litigations challenging the removals—but nowhere so much as in the state of Florida where the push to ban material that some may deem offensive has been signed into law.
So, a lawsuit brought against Escambia by a coalition of bestselling authors, PEN America, Penguin Random House and seven resident parents is being closely watched. The lawsuit asks that all challenged and banned library books be returned to their shelves. Alleging that the Escambia County school district has set out to exclude certain ideas from their school libraries by removing or restricting books for indefinite periods of time, the lawsuit is the first of its kind to challenge unlawful censorship, according to PEN America’s website.
Not only are students being closed off to diverse viewpoints, the plaintiffs claim, but the school district’s actions violate the First and 14th Amendments.
U.S. Rep Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-FL) who introduced a bill last month to provide federal funding to school districts looking to oppose challenges to books, said, “Book bans in Florida and in states across the nation are a direct attack on our freedoms and liberties… What we are seeing in Florida and states like Texas, Utah, and Missouri are loud and clear attempts by far-right conservative leaders to silence and erase our Black, brown, Hispanic, and LGBTQ+ communities.”
He could have added, “Jewish,” for in Escambia, as in other school districts, a large percentage of removed books are Jewish-themed. Besides Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Escambia has also removed other books about the Holocaust, including Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography, by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón; Schindler’s List, the novel about Oskar Schindler by Australian author Thomas Keneally that was adapted into Steven Spielberg’s movie; and The Librarian of Auschwitz: The Graphic Novel,” by Antonio Iturbe and Salva Rubio, based on the true story of Holocaust survivor Dita Kraus, who hid books from the Nazis in the camps.
A justification used by other Florida counties for the removal of “Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography,” was that the original Diary remained available. No such rationale was available to the Escambia school district, however, where both books—each controlled by the Anne Frank Fonds—are now gone. The group, based in Switzerland, said, “We consider the book of a 12-year-old girl to be appropriate reading for her peers.”
Elsewhere other books about Judaism or the Holocaust that have been removed from schools include Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer and Elisabeth Kushner’s The Purim Superhero, a children’s book about an LGBTQ Jewish family.
Iowa federal judge Stephen Locher, in granting a preliminary injunction on parts of that state’s book-ban law which he characterized as “staggeringly broad,” said it would keep Nobel Peace Prize author Elie Wiesel’s classic Holocaust memoir, Night, off school shelves. Locher called the law “one of the most bizarre laws I’ve ever read in my life.”
In Escambia County, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody was permitted to participate in support of the state law—an indication of the importance of the litigation.
At the opening hearing on January 10th, federal Judge T. Kent Wetherell II rejected a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, explaining that while the school board has the power to remove books for legitimate reasons, they can’t remove them for not being in line with their moral beliefs. It’s up to the parents to decide, the judge said, on what is appropriate for their family. The case will proceed to a potential jury trial.
Photo by Juhan Sonin.