PEN America v. Escambia County School Board

Books on a bookshelf in soft focus.

Protect Democracy, along with co-counsel Ballard Spahr, LLP, represents free expression organization PEN America, alongside publisher Penguin Random House, authors, parents, and students in litigation challenging the constitutionality of the Escambia County School Board’s removal and restriction of books discussing race, racism, or LGBTQ individuals from public school libraries.

Ensuring that students have access to books on a wide range of topics and expressing a diversity of viewpoints is a core function of public education that prepares students to be thoughtful and engaged citizens. In contravention of these basic principles – and the careful recommendations of special review committees tasked with evaluating books with parent and community feedback – the lawsuit alleges, Escambia County ratified the political objections of a small minority and chose to exclude certain ideas from their school libraries by removing or restricting books, many of which have been on the shelves for years.

As the Supreme Court has long recognized, “[t]he vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools,” which serve as a “marketplace of ideas.” That is because “[t]he Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth out of a multitude of tongues, rather than through any kind of authoritative selection.” Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 512 (1969).

The lawsuit alleges that the removals and restrictions from school libraries violate the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause by discriminating based on viewpoint and based on the protected classes to which the authors and students belong. In denying the school board’s motion to dismiss, the federal district court rejected the argument that libraries are government speech and narrowed the focus of the case to the First Amendment claims.

As a Black mother of two teenage girls, I know how important it is for our children to have access to books like The Freedom Writers Diary and Beloved. I respect the right of parents to make decisions with and for their own children. In my opinion, we should not shy away from the real, raw struggles this country has faced, and my girls shouldn’t be deprived access to books on those issues because our stories make someone else uncomfortable.


Someone with a master’s degree in library science, also known as a librarian, should be deciding what’s in libraries – not politicians. Parents, of course, should be involved in what is in their own child’s best interest to read. But they shouldn’t be making decisions on behalf of other people’s children. You parent your child, I’ll parent mine, and we’ll let librarians do their jobs. That sounds good to me.


The school board is removing books from the school library based on the political views of a small minority. In removing and restricting the books, the school board is overriding the recommendations of district review committees designed to evaluate books with parent and community feedback. This isn’t simply an affront to parents, it’s a violation of the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause.


Here, based on stated purpose of Defendant’s school libraries . . . and the fact that the traditional purpose of a library is to provide information on a broad range of subjects and viewpoints, the Court simply fails to see how any reasonable person would view the contents of the school library (or any library for that matter) as the government’s endorsement of the views expressed in the books on the library’s shelves. 

US District Judge Kent Wetherell, in JAn. 12, 2024 order Denying defendant’s motion to Dismiss
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