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Parents sue Florida Board of Education over book ban policy

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Parents sue Florida Board of Education over book ban policy

Jun 06, 2024 | 2:05 pm ET
By Mitch Perry
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Parents sue Florida Board of Education over book ban policy
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A wave of book bans have hit school libraries in the last few years. (Photo by Getty Images)

Three parents of children attending Florida public schools filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Florida Board of Education on Thursday, claiming that a 2023 education law discriminates against parents who oppose book bans and censorship.

The legislation in question (HB 1069) requires local school boards to adopt policies regarding objections by parents to the use of specific material, but these parents contend that the law “only provides a mechanism for a parent to object to the affirmative use of material; it does not provide a mechanism for a parent to object to the lack of use or discontinued use of material.”

Florida saw more books challenged for removal than any other state last year, according to data released by the American Library Association.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court Northern Division of Florida by:

  • Nancy Tray, a St. Johns County resident and parent of three students in the St. John’s School District;
  • Anne Watts Tressler, a St. Johns County resident and parent of two students in the St. Johns School District; and
  • Stephana Ferrell, an Orange County resident and parent of two children who attend Orange County Public Schools.

The defendants are the Florida Board of Education, along with the chair, vice chair, and all individual members of that body as well as Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz Jr.

“The law is an attempt to steal important decisions away from parents and allows those with a strong desire to withhold critical information on a variety of age-relevant topics to decide what books our kids have access to,” Ferrell said in a press release. “The State of Florida should not be able to discriminate against the voices of parents they disagree with — I deserve an equal voice in my child’s education as any other parent.”

As noted in the lawsuit, the bill sponsor, Ocala Republican Stan McClain, acknowledged on the floor of the House when the bill was being debated that the legislation would treat parents differently depending on whether they objected to or supported the availability of school materials.

Gainesville Democratic Rep. Yvonne Hinson remarked to McClain that there was “a method on several pages of your bill for a parent to complain about a book. But is there a method for the other 99% of the parents to request the book?”

McClain said there was not, and that he would not consider including such a method.

‘Shut Up!’

The lawsuit goes into detail describing how Ferrell, the Orange County mother, was unsuccessful in fighting the removal of a book called “Shut Up!” by Marilyn Reynolds at Timber Creek High School, removed in the summer of 2023 due to the objection of a single parent.

Ferrell objected to the removal of that title, but was informed on Aug. 30, 2023, that the district had rejected her objection because “[o]nly the challenger can appeal the determination of the School or District to not remove the book to the board. You do not have the standing to file with this board. … The statute does not expressly give the authority to parents to challenge a removal of a book.”

Ferrell sought access to the state review process and submitted her objection to the State Review Liaison on Sept. 26, 2023. She finally received a response on Feb. 27, 2024, informing her that “the Department has received multiple requests for the Appointment of a Special Magistrate. You will receive a response in writing in the near future.”

The very next day, the department wrote to Ferrell that “[a] special magistrate is not available to contest a district’s decision to remove material or for the purpose of providing clarification on the law. As such, your request has been dismissed.”

The lawsuit goes on to say: “Parent Ferrell’s request was dismissed because she holds the State’s disfavored view.”

“Florida has become a national leader in book banning, garnering mass attention for the unprecedented number of books that have been removed from our public schools,” said Samantha Past, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida, one of three law firms representing the parents (along with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Democracy Forward Foundation).

“A review process that is available only to parents with certain viewpoints violates the First Amendment. Denying parents an appropriate avenue to challenge censorship is undemocratic, and stifling viewpoints the state disagrees with is unlawful. Ultimately, these actions perpetuate the statewide attack on members of the Black, Brown, and LGBTQ+ communities in an attempt to erase them from our history books,” Past continued.

2,700 books

Nearly 2,700 books were targeted for restriction or removal in Florida schools and libraries in 2023, according to the American Library Association in a report issued in March. That was 1,200 more than the state with the second-most challenges, Texas.

Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledged that giving parents the right to object to books and other materials in public schools has led to confusion at school districts throughout the state, but he declined to criticize state policy.

“If you have a kid in school, OK. But if you’re somebody who doesn’t have a kid in school and you’re going to object to 100 books, no, I don’t think that that’s appropriate,” he said.

DeSantis earlier this year signed into law a bill that caps the number of books that individuals who don’t have children in Florida’s public-school systems at one per month. The bill’s original language would have charged a $100 fee for a person who brought an unsuccessful challenge, but that was stripped from the final legislation.

Sydney Booker, the communications director with the Florida Department of Education, responded to the lawsuit by issuing this statement: “There are no books banned in Florida. However, sexually explicit material and instruction are not suitable for classrooms.”