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November 30, 2023

Students and authors sue Florida school district that banned a book about two male penguins

Students and authors sue Florida school district that banned a book about two male penguins

Six Florida students, their parents and two authors sued a central Florida school district Tuesday for banning some students’ access to a children’s book about two male penguins who raise a baby penguin together.

Last year, the school board in Lake County, near Orlando, barred students who are in kindergarten through third grade from accessing “And Tango Makes Three,” a 2005 book based on a true story about two male penguins at New York City’s Central Park Zoo who adopted and raised an orphaned penguin chick named Tango.

The district said at the time that its decision was based on Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, which prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure, which critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, in March 2022.

DeSantis signed a bill that expands the law last month. The new measure prohibits sexual orientation or gender identity instruction in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, restricts reproductive health education in sixth through 12th grade and requires that reproductive health instruction “be age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” The law applies to both public and charter schools.

Tuesday’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for Middle Florida, argues that the law is “vague and overbroad” and that the district, by restricting access to “And Tango Makes Three,” violated the First Amendment.

“By discriminating based on content and viewpoint, it infringes the authors’ right to freedom of expression,” the suit says. “By restricting access to a book, which was previously freely available, for narrowly partisan and political reasons, it infringes students’ right to receive information.”

The authors, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, said in a joint statement that they sued “to affirm the American principle that no child should be denied access to age-appropriate information in school because of the beliefs and biases of some; to defend students’ right to read a heartwarming story of difference, acceptance, and love; and to protect authors from censorship rooted in intolerance.”

Six students ages 5 to 12, whom the complaint refers to by their initials, joined through their parents or legal guardians because they’re interested in reading the book for a variety of reasons.

Z.T., 12, is gay and loves reading LGBTQ stories, according to the complaint.

“Z.T. is drawn to Tango’s tolerant, kindhearted, and family-friendly depiction of two parents of the same sex who raise an adopted child— a family structure that she could someday have with a future spouse,” the complaint says.

Another child in the district, D.S., lives with a grandmother, his brother and his half-brother, the complaint says. He wants to read “And Tango Makes Three” because he’s interested in learning about different family structures.

“D.S.’s family looks different from the families of many of his friends and classmates at Beverly Shores Elementary School, who live in two-parent households in which all of the children are biologically related to each other and both of their parents,” the complaint says. He also wants to read the book because he loves animals and wants to become what he calls an “animal doctor” when he grows up, it says

Faith E. Gay, an attorney with Selendy Gay Elsberg PLLC, which filed the suit, said in a statement that any law that bans a book like “And Tango Makes Three” “runs roughshod over our most basic constitutional principles of freedom of speech and expression.”

“It also flies in the face of deeply-held American values we all share: respect for families, responsible parenting, openness, hospitality and generosity of spirit,” Gay said. 

The lawsuit is the second filed against a Florida school district over restrictions on books. Last month, Pen America, a nonprofit group that advocates for free expression in literature; Penguin Random House, a multinational publishing company; and a group of authors, students and parents sued the Escambia County School District in Pensacola and its school board over removing 10 books related to race and the LGBTQ community.

Students, teachers and parents also filed a separate lawsuit last year to block the so-called Don’t Say Gay law from taking effect. A federal judge dismissed the suit in February. 

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