Book banners suffer two setbacks in court

  Rob Boston

Reading about the wave of book censorship that’s washing over America, one can’t help but feel discouraged. As we noted recently in Church & State, books are being yanked from school libraries and classrooms for no reason other than they’ve offended Christian Nationalists.

Against this bleak backdrop, we do have some good news: Defenders of the right to read are fighting back, and they just won two important courtroom victories.

Texas law struck down

In Texas, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative legal panels in the country, refused to breathe new life into a state law that established a system compelling book vendors to review and rate books for sexual content before they could sell them to public schools.

Forcing booksellers to participate in the cumbersome process, the appellate court ruled, amounted to a form of forced speech.

Under the law, any book found to be “explicit” could not be sold to public schools, and existing copies would have to be pulled from school libraries. Among the many problems with the law is that it’s subjective. What’s explicit to one person might be merely mildly racy or completely inoffensive to someone else.

The law, which bookstores and publishing groups challenged, was clearly designed to give religious extremists a powerful tool to remove titles they dislike. Good riddance!

Florida lawsuit will proceed

In Florida, a federal court recently ruled that a lawsuit challenging book bans in Escambia County can move forward. The legal action, sponsored by Penguin Random House, the free-expression group PEN America, various authors and local families, asserts that the bans violate the First Amendment.

The situation in Escambia County (which includes the Pensacola area in Florida’s panhandle) is particularly alarming. Nearly 3,000 books have been pulled from public schools for “review.” Among them are several dictionaries and encyclopedias. School officials yanked the books in response to Florida’s infamous “don’t say gay” bill, but many of the titles targeted have nothing to do with LGBTQ+ themes.

ABC News reported that the lawsuit asserts that “the removals have disproportionately targeted books by or about people of color and/or LGBTQ people, and have prescribed an orthodoxy of opinion that violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

Attacking the right to read

That “orthodoxy of opinion” is often spearheaded by Christian Nationalists who are determined to use their religious beliefs to control what young people can read, see and experience. Sadly, Florida’s law helps them do this. If even one person complains about a book, it must be put under review. In Escambia County, most book challenges have been traced to a single person – a high school English teacher who has blasted titles for containing “sexual content” and “LGBTQ content.”

Religious extremists would like to keep young people ignorant. It won’t work for lots of reasons, but their crusade is turning a lot of good books into collateral damage.

These recent court victories are heartening, but we have much work to do to stop the censors and their war on the freedom to learn.

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