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Florida school board, sued for book bans, wants to depose 7-year-old while refusing to be deposed themselves

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The Escambia County School Board, embroiled in a lawsuit with a local teacher and the PEN America organization over the banning of certain books from school libraries, has made a controversial request to obtain testimony from a 7-year-old student. While, simultaneously arguing its own members can’t be deposed, says it “has the right to explore the claims and defenses in the case directly with the students.” This questionable move has sparked a debate about the involvement of minors in legal battles and the implications for the ongoing case.

Background of the Case

The lawsuit centers around the Escambia County School Board’s decision to remove around 200 books from its libraries at the urging of groups like Moms for Liberty. The Plaintiffs argue that the removals are a violation of free speech and educational rights. The school board contends that the books in question contain inappropriate content for students. Some Moms for Liberty leaders have gone as far as to call the police on school librarians demanding their arrests.

Parent Ann Novakowski joined the lawsuit on behalf of her now-7-year-old, “J.N.,” because she wants “her child to have access to these books, and others like them, among other reasons, so that she is presented with different viewpoints and experiences and, thus, better prepared to engage with a wide range of people,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit claims students some students have been negatively affected by the removal of the books, including “And Tango Makes Three,” a children’s picture book about a same-sex penguin pair raising a chick together.

Request for Child’s Testimony

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In it’s latest strategy, the school board has requested that a 7-year-old child, identified only by their initials, be called to testify. The board claims that the child’s perspective is crucial in understanding the impact of the book removals on young students.

“What a parent thinks their child wants to read and is interested in and what the child actually wants to read and is interested in may be different,” a defendant’s attorney wrote to those suing in emails found in court records.

Legal and Ethical Concerns

This request has raised significant legal and ethical concerns. Critics argue that involving a young child in such a high-stakes legal matter could be traumatic and may not yield reliable testimony.

Reporting from The Tallahassee Democrat states the defendants also cited legal protections held by some government officials and say depositions are unnecessary anyway because deliberations happened before the public.

County school officials also are trying to get out of depositions in a separate high-stakes lawsuit filed against them, this one by the authors of “And Tango Makes Three.”

The authors say the board members removed “And Tango Makes Three” from its school shelves “because of its positive depiction of a same-sex couple and their family.” And they produced emails they say show at least one member had “individual animus” toward it because of such content.

Two days before the board members voted on whether to remove the title, a constituent emailed board member Kevin Adams that she was opposed to the book because it “(promoted) transsexual decisions and homosexual ideas.” Adams responded the next day, “I agree with your concerns and will vote accordingly.” He did not respond to a request for comment.

Expert Opinions

Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, expressed her disapproval: “This is highly unusual and inappropriate. It puts undue pressure on a young child and could set a dangerous precedent.”

Broader Implications

The outcome of this case could have far-reaching implications for similar book ban cases nationwide. It highlights the ongoing debate over the balance between protecting students and ensuring their right to access diverse literature.

The legal proceedings are set to continue, with the court yet to decide on the school board’s request to include the child’s testimony. The case remains a focal point in the broader conversation about educational freedom and censorship in schools.

Plaintiffs in this case are asking U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell, before making a final decision on the entirety of the case, to return seven of the nearly 200 challenged books that remain restricted in the schools as of late June.

“For well over a year, defendant Escambia County School Board … has restricted access to books in its school libraries based on nothing more than discriminatory viewpoint-based challenges by local residents who dislike the messages in those books,” the wrote in a motion filed last week.

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