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A free speech group is suing a Florida school district over book bans

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The largest book publisher in the country has joined forces with PEN America to push back against book banning. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Penguin Random House is part of a coalition including parents and authors that filed a federal lawsuit today challenging bans in one Florida county.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Escambia County in northwest Florida has removed or restricted at least 16 books from public school libraries and classrooms. They range from a Nobel Prize winner's first novel to a popular coming-of-age bestseller that came out in the 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER")

LOGAN LERMAN: (As Charlie) I really want to turn things around this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL BELL RINGING)

ULABY: "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" was also a hit movie. But last fall, a local high school teacher challenged it and more than a hundred other books. Christian activists testified at multiple school board meetings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AARON SCHNEIER: It's not censorship to not have a bunch of erotic, sexually explicit books in school.

ULABY: That's Pensacola parent Aaron Schneier at the meeting where school board member Kevin Adams voted to remove "Perks Of Being A Wallflower" from an optional 12th grade novel study.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN ADAMS: What is our standard for ensuring good conduct and manners for our students when I can't even repeat some of the stuff that's here into this mic? Or I wouldn't because of the values I have.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: That violates the First Amendment.

ULABY: Suzanne Nossel runs PEN America. Over the past two years, the free speech group has documented more than 4,000 cases of books being banned or removed. This lawsuit was filed, she says, because Escambia County's case was so egregious.

NOSSEL: It was time to really call it out in detail. And we have a group of plaintiffs including parents who are affected, students who are affected, Penguin Random House, a publisher that is affected. And we've come together to say we need the courts to step in and uphold our constitutional rights.

ULABY: Among the plaintiffs is writer Ashley Hope Perez. Her bestselling book "Out Of Darkness" traces a love affair between a Mexican American girl and an African American boy. So exactly how banned is Perez?

ASHLEY HOPE PEREZ: My 7-year-old would answer the question, my mom is super banned.

ULABY: In dozens of places including Escambia County. Perez says there's a pattern where books like hers are targeted by book removal groups including Moms for Liberty that offer talking points.

PEREZ: There's little evidence of having actually engaged with the books themselves and a lot of copying and pasting. So you see the same typos, for example.

ULABY: Perez says she would prefer discussions to lawsuits, but at this critical moment, she says the tools of democracy work too.

PEREZ: Young people do not want sanitized narratives. They want opportunities to talk about difficult issues and to imagine lives that are different than their own.

ULABY: The Escambia School Board said last month it's pausing book challenges indefinitely. No one from the school board replied to NPR's requests for comment. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRENT FAIYAZ SONG, "WASTING TIME (FEAT. DRAKE AND THE NEPTUNES)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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