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Florida's Attorney General backs Escambia School Board in contentious book removal case

Banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on Thursday, July 7, 2022. The books are banned in several public schools and libraries in the U.S., but young people can read digital versions from anywhere through the library. The Brooklyn Public Library offers free membership to anyone in the U.S. aged 13 to 21 who wants to check out and read books digitally in response to the nationwide wave of book censorship and restrictions.
Ted Shaffrey
/
AP
Banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on Thursday, July 7, 2022. The books are banned in several public schools and libraries in the U.S., but young people can read digital versions from anywhere through the library. The Brooklyn Public Library offers free membership to anyone in the U.S. aged 13 to 21 who wants to check out and read books digitally in response to the nationwide wave of book censorship and restrictions.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody will be allowed to intervene in an ongoing legal dispute over the removal of books from Escambia County schools, a judge decided recently.

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Moody’s office had asked permission from U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell to participate in a Jan. 10 hearing and support the Escambia County School Board’s request to have the case dismissed.

The lawsuit was initiated last year by seven parents, five authors, the publisher Penguin Random House, and the free speech advocacy group PEN America. Those plaintiffs have argued that the board violated their First Amendment and equal-protection rights by restricting access to library books.

In a document filed last week, Moody’s office argued that the board’s actions were “government speech” and, therefore, “not subject to First Amendment scrutiny.”

RELATED: A free speech group is suing Escambia County School District over book bans

To support this claim, the state cited an Oct. 27 ruling by a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In that case, the court ruled that the city manager of Miami Beach had not violated the First Amendment when they ordered the removal of a piece of artwork from a city-organized event. Governments, the panel wrote, “are not obliged to display any particular artwork in the art exhibitions that they fund, organize, and promote.”

Tallahassee’s decision to intervene in Escambia County comes as the national spotlight continues to tighten around the Sunshine State as the white-hot center of a national debate over school libraries, free speech, equal representation, and parental rights.

U.S. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-FL) introduced a bill last month that would provide federal funding to school districts looking to oppose challenges to books and other educational materials.

House Resolution 6592, dubbed “The Fight Book Bans Act,” would authorize the U.S. Department of Education to give up to $100,000 to individual school districts to cover things like legal representation, expert advice, travel, and logistics related to book challenges. If passed, the bill would set aside up to $15 million over five years.

“Book bans in Florida and in states across the nation are a direct attack on our freedoms and liberties,” Frost said in announcing the legislation last month. “... 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.”

RELATED: A Boston-based activist is sending banned books to Florida

Responding to Frost’s announcement, Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice sought to reframe the issue as one of parental rights, saying the phrase “book ban” was “misleading.”

“It is nice that the Congressman does not want to ban books,” she said. “We don’t either. We are fighting for a parent’s ability to question books in their child’s K-12 public school. These schools are taxpayer-funded and should not be above transparency or parental input.”

Supporters of the bill, meanwhile, have noted that many districts, including Escambia, had pulled books off shelvesin response to changes in state law, often without giving students or parents an opportunity to weigh in, at all.

Laura Schroeder, Congressional Affairs Lead for PEN America, said that Frost’s bill would simply give options to school districts who felt intimidated to pull books off shelves and lacked the resources to take a stand.

“Banning books in schools is not only unpopular; it’s expensive,” Schroeder said. “As school districts around the country divert resources to address widespread efforts to curtail students’ freedom to read, it is once again students who ultimately suffer the most.”

The bill, which currently has 67 cosponsors, must make it through committee before being voted on by the full U.S. House of Representatives. It would then need to be passed by the U.S. Senate before being signed into law by the President.