Why the world’s largest publisher found a book-ban lawsuit in Florida ‘irresistible’

Hands hold open "The Bluest Eye" atop a stack of banned books, right; left, a man in a suit at a podium gestures skyward.
PEN America and publisher Penguin Random House filed suit against Escambia County School District over its removal and restriction of books from school libraries following a wave of book bans backed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right.
(Rick Bowmer; Wilfredo Lee / AP)

As school library book bans proliferate across the country, the resistance is becoming more organized. This week, a book publisher — the largest in the world — entered the fray. A lawyer for the publishing conglomerate Penguin Random House told The Times it was suing to stop “one of the most unsubtle attempts at viewpoint discrimination” ever seen.

Joined by free-speech advocacy group PEN America and several authors and parents, Penguin Random House filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the Escambia County School District and its school board, alleging they were violating the 1st Amendment by scrubbing library shelves of books based on a political or ideological disagreement with the ideas the books express.

They also allege a 14th Amendment violation citing the Equal Protection Clause, because the challenged books are disproportionately titles by nonwhite and/or LGBTQ+ authors and explore diverse stories and themes.


Penguin Random House has had two of its books, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and “Push” by Sapphire, removed from some Escambia School District libraries. Numerous other books, including “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini and “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, were targeted for removal pending a review process that the suit claims is essentially bogus.

In DeSantis they trust: Conservative parental groups and powerful politicians clash with parents, teachers and librarians who oppose the banning of books.

May 15, 2023

“For many instances there’s not even the attempt at a pretext,” Dan Novack, Penguin Random House vice president and associate general counsel, told The Times. “These are being removed because there are depictions of [LGBTQ+] characters, there are depictions of racial identity, and that’s the reasons why they are being flagged by individuals for removal.

“And on top of that,” Novack continued, “when these titles do get flagged, what we’re seeing is that there is a committee that it’s supposed to go to that’s filled with actual members of the community, experts, etc., and they’re saying these are educationally appropriate. And then the school district is just overruling their own people. So it’s one of the most eye-popping fact patterns we’ve seen, and we think that when the court sees it, and certainly the public sees it, they’ll understand the strength of the case.”

According to the lawsuit, the majority of the book bans in the county, which encompasses Pensacola in the Florida panhandle, stem from a single Northview High School language arts teacher, Vicki Baggett, who embarked on an aggressive campaign to remove student access to 116 books, stating the books “should be evaluated based on explicit sexual content, graphic language, themes, vulgarity and political pushes.”

Actor, author and ‘Reading Rainbow’ founder Levar Burton joins the L.A. Times Book Club to discuss the State of Banned Books.

May 30, 2023

Among the challenged titles were “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier; quotes from the book relating to one character’s identification as gay were listed as the sole ground for removal, according to the lawsuit. Baggett also petitioned for the removal of Duchess Harris’ “Race and Policing in Modern America,” a nonfiction resource guide intended for middle-school readers, arguing it was anti-police and written “to race-bait.”

A bestselling book about science, race and the family of a woman whose cells were the source of some of the most important medical innovations of the 20th century is “pornographic,” according to one Tennessee mom.

Sept. 8, 2015

The suit also alleges that Baggett admitted she’d never heard of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, which she petitioned to remove, until learning it was frequently targeted elsewhere. Many of her objections seemed to be copied and pasted (including typos) directly from the website Book Looks, which was founded by a member of the Brevard County, Fla., chapter of the group Moms for Liberty.


After a panel consisting of Northview leadership, faculty, staff and one parent voted in favor of “Wallflower” remaining on library shelves, Baggett appealed the panel’s decision with a letter to the school district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, copying members of the school board, the superintendent and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The assistant superintendent responded by convening a “district review committee,” which echoed the initial panel’s vote in favor of “Wallflower.”

Baggett appealed the decision again, which led to the school board overruling the committee’s decision and removing “Wallflower” from school district libraries.

Baggett did not immediately respond to The Times’ request for comment.

The night before PEN America and Penguin Random House filed the suit, the Escambia County School Board voted to terminate Superintendent Tim Smith, in part due to his failure to act more swiftly to remove books.

Board Chair Paul Fetsko and District 1 Board Member Kevin Adams had cited Smith as receiving an unsatisfactory performance evaluation weeks earlier.

“Failure to take prompt action to ensure media library books with age-inappropriate content,” Adams said of Smith in his evaluation, per Pensacola News Journal.


“Not removing questionable books from media centers,” Fetsko echoed.

Conservatives vilify school librarians as “groomers and pedophiles” for stocking LGBTQ and racially themed books. “We have been cursed,” said one librarian.

Jan. 27, 2023

According to the lawsuit, the total number of books currently being challenged in the Escambia County School District has reached 197; 70% of these remained restricted as of Wednesday’s filing. Statewide, more than 500 books were permanently or temporarily removed between July 2021 and June 2022. And nationwide, according to PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans, 2,532 individual titles were banned during the same time period.

“We’ve been looking at this escalating pattern nationwide of censorship,” Novack said. “And when we found out that our partners on the ground, PEN, and authors and parents were interested in formally and legally pushing back, the case was irresistible to us because they need the support, and we’re here to provide it.”

As for a nationwide legal strategy to fight book bans, Novack says publishers have a challenging road ahead: “These laws are like snowflakes, there’s so many different variants, and they all work in slightly different ways.

“So while this is an important precedent to set thematically and legally, it doesn’t work the same way in Tennessee versus Florida or Texas or Missouri or Utah. So we’re really ... figuring out where we can have impact.”

Nadine Farid Johnson, managing director of PEN America Washington and Free Expression Programs and lead counsel on the lawsuit, told The Times that PEN hopes this suit will help turn the tide against the current wave of book bans.

Florida is banning gender-affirming care for minors and enacting a series of other anti-LGBTQ+ bills signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

May 17, 2023

“PEN America has been documenting and analyzing these bans for the better part of two years, and the numbers are continuing to grow,” Johnson said. “We have upwards of 4 million students across the U.S. affected by these decisions, and our lawsuit is looking at this through the constitutional lens, which I think is the correct lens, because ultimately what is at stake here are the fundamental rights that are in our Constitution.”


DeSantis is not named as a defendant in the suit, but the Republican governor, who is expected to announce his 2024 presidential campaign this month, has championed policies that embolden book-banning efforts, specifically in relation to cultural divides on race, gender and sexual orientation.

“Thirty-two different states have experienced a ban of some sort, and Florida really is a leader in this realm,” Johnson said. “And Escambia County in particular, it truly epitomizes what is happening around the country. And for that reason we chose to go into this district.”

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ State of the State speech is likely to be more about making a case to lead the country than an assessment of Florida.

March 7, 2023

On Wednesday, Macmillan Publishers CEO Jonathan Yaged released a statement expressing support for the suit. “Macmillan staunchly supports our author, George M. Johnson, PEN America, and all the plaintiffs in their lawsuit,” Yaged said in the statement. “... As future leaders of our democracy, children need and deserve access to the full breadth of who we are as Americans. The censorship of books is a direct attack on the founding principles of our country and our constitutional rights as citizens.”

Escambia County school officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.