A Legal Nonprofit Steps Up. Democracy Forward Talks to SLJ About Book Bans, with Advice on Countering Censorship

SLJ spoke with Skye Perryman and Megan Uzzell of Democracy Forward, a nonprofit organization that provides legal counsel to help people and communities defend core democratic principles.

American eagle and shield graphic, with a book instead of a shield, with banned book covers cycling through.


As book banning rages on nationwide, the issue has moved from school board meetings and school libraries to courtrooms and national political campaigns. To better understand the broader implications of the battle against censorship, SLJ spoke with Skye Perryman and Megan Uzzell of Democracy Forward, a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation and counsel to people and communities to "fight back against threats to democracy, social progress, and the rule of law." 

The organization has stepped in to support those facing book banning and censorship in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Lawyers from Democracy Forward are part of the Florida Education Association’s legal team in the lawsuit against members of Governor Ron DeSantis’s administration, challenging HB 1467's implementation as unlawful. The suit originally included parent-led grassroots organizations Florida Freedom to Read Project and Families Strong for Public Schools. In a May hearing, judge Darren Schwartz removed the parents groups for "lack of standing." 

"While the court determined that the parents did not meet the legal requirement to participate in the legal challenge, the case remains active with the Florida Education Association as a plaintiff," says Uzzell. "We are honored to represent parents and educators to ensure parents had their day in court to make clear how the DeSantis administration unlawfully exceeded its authority, caused classroom libraries to shutter, and hurt students, parents, teachers, and librarians."

Democracy Forward joins the list of organizations that educators and community members can contact when seeking legal advice as they face censorship and the often ensuing personal and professional attacks. 

In addition to litigating the case in Florida, Democracy Forward is seeking documents regarding the book review process in Central York, PA, and Granbury, TX, in support of parents and students in those districts.

"We've been so impressed by the courageous individuals we've had the chance to work alongside who are standing up to censorship in their communities," says Uzzell, director of strategic initiatives and external affairs for the organization. She has a little guidance for those who may find themselves considering a legal option. Every case is different, she says, but some basic steps are often helpful for all. First, connect with advocates and other impacted individuals in your area.

"There is strength in building community on these issues," she says.

And, "Document, document, document!"

Documentation is not just about maintaining the paper trail of your communications. Educators and community members should note not only how policy is being implemented, Uzzell recommends, but how the censorship attempts are changing the community and impacting you and others. They should also consult with an attorney about possible legal options.

[READ: Fuel Up for the Fight: Resources to Push Back on Censorship Efforts]

Show up for public accountability

“There are a range of legal tools available to educators, to parents, and to community members that are facing harassment and having to work under sort of unlawful censorship,” says Perryman.

While more lawsuits have been filed in recent weeks, going to court is not the only step people can take.

“Public accountability is incredibly important,” says Perryman, president and CEO of Democracy Forward. “What we all too often see is that these special interest, far-right groups try to intimidate through tactics on social media, through personally attacking people, [and] engaging in very harmful activities. It has the ability at times to intimidate and put communities and people in a situation where they're afraid to fight back. So I believe that all public accountability is important—showing up at the school board meeting, calling things out, and speaking the truth.”

Private citizens and public figures raising attention to the issue is also vitally important. Celebrities took part in the #LetAmericaRead campaign, and President Joe Biden included the issue of book banning in the video launching his re-election campaign.

“Any national conversation and national platform that is elevating these issues and making sure people understand that this is a democracy issue is incredibly important,” says Perryman, who moderated a congressional briefing on book banning that was honorarily hosted by Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin. “This is about who we are as a people in the United States of America. Everyone in our country deserves to be able to go to school and to learn and to be educated with a full panoply of ideas and books.”

It is not an exaggeration to say this is a fight not just to keep books on the shelves but a battle in defense of democracy itself.

“The fundamental ability to read, to learn, to engage in free expression, to engage in the exchange of ideas; for all people in the country to be able to be educated in ways that are respectful of history [and] that put diverse ideas on the table, is fundamental to the promise of democracy,” says Perryman, “We know that in countries where there is a movement to restrict that freedom of expression—where there is a political movement, a fear-based movement, to make people afraid of ideas or of learning or of history—those are often situations where there are broader attacks on fundamental democratic values.… We have seen examples in other societies and throughout history [that] efforts to censor often come with broader efforts to undermine democratic institutions.”

The team at Democracy Forward got involved after repeatedly hearing similar stories from educators, librarians, parents, and students in different parts of the country. They observed that the narrative being used by those wanting to ban books and shouting for “parental rights” was largely the same.

“It really clued us in, in a very visible way, that this is not about an individual concern or how to deal with a particular issue in [a] community,” says Uzzell,

Instead, a vocal minority was using a well-crafted message to wage a culture war while purporting to defend the rights of parents. The attack on books, students, and families, Uzzell says, is “a power issue, a gender issue, a racial issue. It is an attack on the freedom to read at the most core and fundamental level.”

Unfortunately, the censors had a head start. Fueled by funding and effective messaging, the movement to censor books and therefore erase communities and infringe on democratic values was succeeding before the greater public became aware of the issue.

“What we do know, historically, is that societies see an evolution from being more democratically inclined to more authoritarian,” says Perryman, who notes that often, by the time people recognize the threat, it can be too late. “One of the challenges all Americans should feel right now if they care about democracy is to try to build awareness about the importance of these issues and the need to take action.”

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