In one of the big political surprises of 2023, pockets of stiff resistance have sprung up to defend teachers, textbooks, novels and libraries against censorship efforts across the country. This liberal counter-mobilization is substantially less organized than the right’s culture-warring, but it has great untapped potential for Democrats.
These efforts just took an important turn, with a lawsuit filed by Florida parents in federal court Wednesday to try to stop book bans in school libraries in Escambia County, red-leaning terrain in the state’s panhandle. The suit could become a model to challenge bans across Florida and elsewhere.
What’s striking is that this lawsuit is being brought by mothers who want their kids exposed to ideas that the censors have decreed are unsuitable. The suit is spearheaded by PEN America and is joined by several writers whose books have been banned, along with Penguin Random House, which published them.
“It’s one thing for you to say, ‘I don’t want my child to read this,’” Lindsay Durtschi, a mom and plaintiff in the lawsuit, told me. “But if you take it from the library altogether, you’re also telling me that my child can’t read this.”
The lawsuit argues that a slew of book removals in the county violate the First Amendment by denying parents and students access to information for ideological purposes. Citing court precedent, the complaint argues that, while administrators do have some control over what appears in public school libraries, this doesn’t permit official suppression of disfavored ideas.
“This case is important,” Scott Wilkens, senior counsel at the Knight First Amendment Institute, told me. “It may place constitutional limits on the authority of school boards to remove books from school libraries.”
The counter-mobilization against the right’s culture-war extremism has room to grow, giving Democrats an opening. In his reelection campaign video, President Biden attacked book bans, suggesting Democrats believe reactionary overreach motivates their base and alienates suburban swing voters.
But a deeper contest of values is at stake. As Jennifer C. Berkshire and Jack Schneider argue in the New Republic, the Republicans censoring school discussion of sex, gender and race are trying to circumscribe the core role that public education plays in developing future citizens in a tolerant, multiracial liberal democracy.
Democrats must affirmatively argue that public education should play this role, and explain this is a key reason this battle really matters. A victory in this lawsuit would give that mission a big boost.