• U.S.
  • Education

Why This Florida Mom Sued the Board of Education Over Book Bans

8 minute read

Three Florida parents sued Florida’s Board of Education on Thursday because they allege the board violates their rights by not having a process to object to the removal of books from school libraries and classrooms.

In the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, the plaintiffs say that Florida law H.B. 1069 violates their First Amendment rights and discriminates against parents who oppose book bans because it does not outline a formal process for individuals to challenge or overturn a decision when their school board removes a book. But the law does require school boards to adopt policies based on parent objections to books or material. 

“The statute only provides a mechanism for a parent to object to the affirmative use of material; it does not provide a mechanism for a parent to object to the lack of use or discontinued use of material,” the lawsuit says. 

Parents of public school children cited the removal of books including Slaughterhouse-Five, A Stolen Life, Freedom Writers Diary, and others in the complaint. “Neither one of my children had classroom libraries because of the fear of being found out of compliance for a book on the shelf,” says Stephana Ferrell, 41, a parent of two kids in Orange County Public Schools and plaintiff in the case.

H.B. 1069 restricts classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, defines sex an “immutable biological trait,” and prevents public school employees or contractors from sharing their preferred pronouns or titles to students if their identity differed from their sex assigned at birth.

Read More: A Visit to the Banned-Book Bus With a Scholar Who Helped Develop Critical Race Theory

This is not the first lawsuit filed against H.B. 1069. A judge also issued a preliminary injunction in April in favor of a transgender teacher who sued to be able to use their preferred pronouns in the classroom, though the case was appealed and is now heading to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Those involved in the Florida case say it’s part of a larger trend in the U.S. “The nation is facing a concerning uptick in attacks on public education and in attacks on books and ideas throughout the country,” said Skye Perryman, President and CEO of Democracy Forward, the organization that is representing plaintiffs in the case. PEN America tracked more than 3,300 instances of book bans in the 2022-23 school year.

Ferrell spoke to TIME by phone on June 6 about why she decided to sue the Board of Education. 

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

TIME: What led you to join the lawsuit? 

Ferrell: I'm a very concerned parent. Over the last few years, with the different legislation that has passed, I've seen not only my children but my friends and communities impacted by the rise in censorship. Neither one of my children had classroom libraries because of the fear of being found out of compliance for a book on the shelf. 

I've done my best to advocate in as many ways as I can— I attend my school board meetings, I track and follow what I can regarding school censorship, and I've spoken out locally, and even at the state level, attending workshops and submitting public comment when possible.

I've seen far too many books be labeled as completely unlawful. I know people are hesitant to use the word ban, but once you're talking about labeling a book as unlawful, there's no way—no matter how much a student wants to read it, no matter how much a parent supports it—that a district can bring that book back into the community, in our schools. That long term impact on my children's education and access to what should be protected speech has been a growing concern of mine.

One of the books that was being removed from Florida classrooms and that you were trying to un-ban was Shut Up! by Marilyn Reynolds, correct? 

I wanted my district to review this decision process. We have a very good, thorough review policy in Orange County that is public, and that's not what took place regarding this particular book. The review that I was asking for wasn't necessarily, “please return this book now,” but “please go through the process and allow the public to participate, and let's decide together whether or not this book should be back on our shelves.” That's what didn't take place.

Why did this particular book stand out to you? And why did you want this specific review of this book?

The overall reason for my concern was not specifically about the book, but just the process itself. I want a process that allows thoughtful discussion. We have that in our policy in Orange County— it didn't happen. And if I think if it had happened, the book would have been retained because the initial objection was its use in curriculum, and not actually questioning whether or not it should be in the library. 

This particular book covers sexual assault of a minor, which is a difficult topic, but it's written from the perspective of the older brother who goes through a lot of grief and anguish over not being able to assist, and realize what was happening, to his brother earlier. 

I think it's really important that the book presents situations that students might not realize [are bad], and grooming situations with what [students might] think is a trusted adult. Because it's written from a teenager's perspective, somebody in that situation would use the language that [the author] used, and probably go through a lot of the feelings and emotions that are in that book. 

While that book might not be appropriate for every child—and I do believe that parents have to set restrictions on their own kids—that could be a very valuable book and tool that could help save lives. 

Read More: The Heavy Cost of Banning Books About Black Children

How involved were you in your child's school curriculum before these book bans started to happen?

I consider myself an independent voter. I wasn't the person that showed up to protests and rallies or events. During COVID I became a little bit more vocal about what I felt was necessary for the protection of my children. I was always following along with the curriculum, I would volunteer in the classroom, I was there on field trips. I was my school's yearbook photographer for big events. 

My husband and I only wanted public schools for our kids. When we selected the house that we now live in, we knew the schools were going to grow up in. 

Attacks that started in ‘21, ‘22 [the legislature passed H.B. 1069 in 2023, but other laws like the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law passed in 2022] have continued ever since. It's not just books, it's not just curriculum; it's discussions in the classrooms, it's a massive building up of distrust in public education. My teachers have been absolutely wonderful. They have stretched them in every way, shape and form… I have a lot of gratitude for the educators that have invested time and not just my kids, but in truly making my school community something that is exciting for my kids to go to every single morning. It pains me as a parent to see these attacks happen, and not enough fellow citizens standing up for and defending the wonderful system that we have in place here.

Are you at all concerned about the publicity or the blowback you or your children might receive because you are a plaintiff in this lawsuit?

There's been assumptions about who I am. Those things have led to personal attacks and mischaracterizations of who I am. It is frustrating. I am a very private person. I do my best to shield my kids from this.

I'm not somebody that is going to post photos of my children publicly and leave them open to harassment. My kids are very proud of the advocacy that I do. And I have their support and my husband's support. My children have the right to an education—it's in our Florida constitution. They also have a right to privacy and I hope that that's respected in this process.

What is it like to be a parent of school age children in Florida right now?

I didn't grow up here, and I would leave tomorrow if possible, honestly. But it's also hard because I do love this community. It's why I stay and it's why I advocate, not just for my own kids, but for everybody because our schools are the hearts of our communities. These book bans, the narrowing of our curriculum and the discussions that we can have in our classroom, the othering of people, that division that's been sown, is going to impact and it has impacted our communities. My family is a multiracial extended family, and it's been really difficult. 

Public education is not only the great equalizer, but it helps unite us from state to state, community to community, across the country. If we have certain states teaching certain things, and certain viewpoints, and others teaching something totally different, it will further divide us as a country.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com