Florida attorney general is arguing in court for virtually unlimited book-banning authority

Republicans like to rail against public schools as “government schools,” with the implication that they are sites where the government brainwashes children with liberal and “woke” ideology. Now, Florida Republicans are in court arguing that Florida public schools are their government schools and can be required to push their message—all the way down to the books in the school libraries.

In response to two lawsuits against the Escambia County and Lake County school boards and, in one case, state education officials, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and the two school boards are arguing, as Moody put it in her brief, that “Public-school systems, including their libraries, convey the government’s message.” According to Moody, who is representing the state, public school libraries are “a forum for government speech,” not a “forum for free expression.” The logical extension of that position is that whoever is in charge of the government gets to decide on all of the information that is not only taught in schools but available in their libraries.

Republicans are of course safe in pushing this idea because while they will ban books with LGBTQ+ characters and anti-racist messages, Democratic administrations tend to leave decisions up to the professionals in the schools. Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey, for example, is not pushing for the removal of books with straight characters because she is herself LGBTQ+.

This lawsuit, reported on in depth by the Tallahassee Democrat, is a classic case of Republicans ignoring concerns about hypocrisy to simply argue for whatever gives them power at any given moment.

“There’s considerable irony in that those who seek to limit access to books in school libraries often say they’re fighting for parental rights,” said Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University. “If government speech determines what books can be in the library, the government is essentially saying your children can only see the ideas that the government has approved.

“That’s not parental rights,” he added. “That’s authoritarianism.”

A group of First Amendment scholars filed an amicus brief in one of the cases, describing the Escambia County board’s argument, one shared by the state, as an “aggressive, unprecedented interpretation of the government speech doctrine” being deployed “to justify the politically motivated manipulation of the contents of public school libraries.” That amicus brief offers multiple grounds for the courts to completely reject the claim that schools are a forum for government speech (a term with a specific, limited meaning in legal precedent). The problem, of course, is the courts today.

The current Supreme Court has shown that it will overturn decades of precedent for partisan benefit. So we’ll see how this one goes. But when Republicans try to claim that they’re not really banning books, remember their argument in court that “Public-school systems, including their libraries, convey the government’s message.” At least, that’s what they want when Republicans are in charge.

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