In the digital age — when the meaning of any unfamiliar word can be found with the click of a button — printed dictionaries have suffered a steep decline in usage. But the waning popularity of reference books hasn’t spared them from the spate of censorship that’s swept school districts nationally in recent years.
In fact, five dictionaries as well as eight encyclopedias and other reference materials including “The Guinness Book of World Records” and “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” are among over 1,600 books that Escambia County Public Schools removed from its library shelves in December and flagged for review, according to free expression advocacy group PEN America and the Florida Freedom to Read Project.
The reference books — along with biographies of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey and Thurgood Marshall; Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl”; and Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries series — have been pulled and are “pending investigation,” with district officials citing a Florida law, enacted in July, that targets content in classroom or school libraries that “depicts or describes sexual conduct.” Many of the books pulled by the district also discussed LGBTQ+ issues and race.
In a statement, Escambia County Public Schools Superintendent Keith Leonard denied that 1,600 books, including dictionaries, had been banned. “Any claims suggesting otherwise are inaccurate and should be disregarded,” he said. “Our school district, and especially our dedicated media specialists, remain committed to adhering to all statutes and regulations, while also providing valuable and varied literacy opportunities for every student.”
However, PEN America did not say that these books had been permanently banned but removed from library shelves “pending investigation.” An Escambia County Public Schools spokesperson did not respond to The 19th’s question about whether the books had been pulled for that reason.
Represented by law firm Ballard Spahr and nonprofit Protect Democracy, PEN America is involved in a federal lawsuit filed in May against the Escambia school board for earlier removing books focused on race and LGBTQ+ issues. The lawsuit notes that the Bible also faced a challenge in the school district but was ultimately allowed to remain on library shelves “because it is authorized as an appropriate educational resource under a separate Florida statute.”
PEN and other plaintiffs, including Penguin Random House and affected authors, parents and students, say restrictions against books infringe on their rights under the First and 14th amendments. Respectively, the amendments protect free speech and guarantee equal protection under the law.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Kent Wetherell rejected the plaintiffs’ claim under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause but ruled that they do have standing under the First Amendment. He ruled that the defendant’s contention that free speech does not apply to school libraries is meritless, as the First Amendment’s protections come into play when officials pull books because of ideological concerns.
“We urged the court to vindicate the constitutional rights of students, parents, authors and publishers,” Katie Blankenship, director of PEN America’s Florida office, said in a statement. “We are heartened that Judge Wetherell agreed and that our case can proceed. These books need to be returned to the shelves where they belong, and every day that students are refused access is a day they’re not getting the high-quality education they deserve.”
More than 40 percent of the nation’s book bans during the 2022-23 school year took place in Florida school districts, making the Sunshine State the place with the most book bans, according to PEN America’s report “Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor.”