Florida school board requests testimony of 7-year-old student in book ban case

A Florida school board is requesting the testimony of a 7-year-old student with optimism with the intention of aiding in the defense against a federal lawsuit challenging its book-removal decisions.

Filed by PEN America, Penguin Random House, book authors, and parents of affected students, the lawsuit contests the denial of access to certain school library books and questions the necessity of deposing such a young child.

The students involved in the lawsuit range from elementary to high school level, with parent Ann Novakowski advocating on behalf of her 7-year-old, “J.N.,” to ensure access to diverse literature for expanded perspectives and readiness to engage with others, as stated in the complaint.

While disputing that their members cannot be deposed, the Escambia County School Board asserts its right to directly engage with the students involved to address the claims and defenses of the case.

A deposition, an out-of-court sworn testimony typically conducted by attorneys, is being debated in this context.

Regarding the young child’s potential deposition, a defendant’s attorney highlighted the potential disparity between a parent’s perception of a child’s interests and the child’s actual preferences, as indicated in emails found in court records.

While older students have been agreed to for depositions with restrictions and parental presence, the plaintiffs resist depositions of elementary-age children.

The plaintiff’s motion expresses concern over the emotional impact on young J.N. and likeminded students due to restricted access to books like “And Tango Makes Three,” emphasizing the negative effects of book removal.

The discussions around “book bans” have intensified nationally, particularly in Florida, where high numbers of book removals and challenges have drawn attention, notably in Escambia County, where legal battles are shaping First Amendment interpretations.

Plaintiffs seek reinstatement of nearly 200 books

In the PEN America case, the plaintiffs are urging Judge T. Kent Wetherell to restore seven of the approximately 200 challenged books retained in county public schools pending the case’s resolution.

Referring to LGBTQ and race-related themes, most of these books have been under review for nearly two years, during which the district has also scrutinized hundreds of unchallenged titles for potential legal conflicts.

Exploring deposition challenges

Depositions involve rigorous questioning by attorneys, a process plaintiffs deem arduous, especially for a 7-year-old who they argue could be adequately represented by a parent.

The plaintiffs maintain that the child’s access outside of school to the banned books is irrelevant to the case, emphasizing the importance of addressing in-school restrictions.

Addressing concerns over the extent of the child’s deposition, limitations are proposed, while the school board seeks protection for its members and superintendent from depositions based on “legislative privilege.”

Citing protections for government officials, the defendants stress that depositions may not be essential as the decision-making process was public, aiming to avoid further depositions in ongoing legal disputes.

Accusations leveled by “And Tango Makes Three” authors highlight contentious motives behind book removals, revealing internal emails reflecting bias against LGBTQ content.

As debates continue, the clash between free speech and school board decisions intensifies, raising questions about book censorship and inclusivity in educational settings.

This article is brought to you in collaboration with Freedom Forum and Journalism Funding Partners. For inquiries, reach out to USA Today Network-Florida First Amendment reporter Douglas Soule at DSoule@gannett.com.

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