Lorne Michaels speaks on stage at the 2023 PEN America Literary Gala on May 18 in New York City. PEN America, publisher Penguin Random House and authors, alongside parents of children affected by Florida’s Escambia County School District’s book bans, sued in federal court to demand that banned books be returned to school library shelves. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

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I’m delighted to be back from vacation! There’s nothing like getting away to gain perspective on the daily onslaught of news. Throughout this week’s newsletter, you’ll notice a common theme: What we need to sustain and enrich a democratic society — freedom of thought. We need to fight for it at the ballot box and in the courtroom but also challenge ourselves to think critically and expand our own intellectual horizons.

What caught my eye

Elections matter: Despite all the gloom and doom, Democrats have been winning plenty of races (Senate seats, governorships in 2022; a better outcome than pundits expected in the House), including victories against Republicans in mayoral races (e.g., Jacksonville, Fla.) and the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Democratic polling consultant Catalist explained how they did it and what it means for 2024.

You might enjoy reading its granular finding in full. But several factors stand out. Democrats must focus on young voters. (“Gen Z and Millennial voters had exceptional levels of turnout, with young voters in heavily contested states exceeding their 2018 turnout by 6% among those who were eligible in both elections.”) They need to lean in on the abortion issue, which weighs heavily in Democrats’ favor, especially among women voters.

As long as Republicans maintain the image of a loony, extreme party, their electoral ceiling will remain low. (They know they have severe problems with younger voters and that the White share of the electorate is declining.) If Democrats keep their coalition intact and turn out the vote, they can cement and build on their 2018, 2020 and 2022 successes.

The courts: Last week, PEN America, publisher Penguin Random House and authors, alongside parents of children affected by Florida’s Escambia County School District’s book bans, sued in federal court to demand that banned books be returned to school library shelves. A statement from PEN explained the basis for the suit: “The school board’s removal and restriction of access to books discussing race, racism, and LGBTQ identities, against the recommendations of the district review committee charged with evaluating book challenges, violates the First Amendment.” The suit also makes an equal protection claim because “the books being singled out are disproportionately books by non-White and/or LGBTQ authors, and often address themes or topics related to race or LGBTQ identity.” It’s particularly significant — and encouraging — that one of the country’s largest book publishers joined the lawsuit.

The Florida book ban is symptomatic of Republicans’ authoritarian crusade to control what Americans read. PEN has tracked the frightful book-banning trend across the states in recent months. “Beginning in the 2021-22 school year, book bans have become an increasingly common feature of public schools, toppling 4,000 individual bans from July 2021-December 2022.”

Escambia County’s book ban is classic “viewpoint discrimination” in which a state actor (the school board) seeks to ban speech not for education purposes but based on “objections to their contents or disagreement with their messages or themes,” as the complaint alleges.

Though this Supreme Court might not respect precedent, there is a Supreme Court case very much on point, Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982), in which the majority held:

Petitioners rightly possess significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries. But that discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner. If a Democratic school board, motivated by party affiliation, ordered the removal of all books written by or in favor of Republicans, few would doubt that the order violated the constitutional rights of the students denied access to those books. The same conclusion would surely apply if an all-white school board, motivated by racial animus, decided to remove all books authored by blacks or advocating racial equality and integration. Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas.

Let’s hope the current Supreme Court doesn’t dispense with this precedent in the same manner it kicked Roe v. Wade to the curb.

Shalini Goel Agarwal, a lawyer for the nonprofit group Protect Democracy, which is co-counsel for the plaintiffs, told me, “In Pico, the Supreme Court recognized that school libraries are places where students can explore new ideas and gain new understanding, and concluded that school boards may not remove books from library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas in those books.” She added, “That’s exactly what’s happening in Escambia County — books have been challenged as ‘LGBTQ content’ and promoting a ‘woke agenda,’ and the school board has overruled the judgment of its appointed review committees and ratified objections levied by a vocal minority.”

Democracy defenders understand just how critical this lawsuit (as are other actions challenging Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s war on the First Amendment) is to the protection of free speech, which includes the right to receive information. Plaintiffs in other states can pursue action against bans that violate both state and federal constitutions. This is the front line in the battle against authoritarianism.

Distinguished persons of the week

I love graduations, even ones in which no one I know is participating. I love the high-minded speeches, the optimism, the pomp and the parental pride. Sure, the ceremonies can be cliché festivals, but once in a while we get a delicious surprise. This graduation season’s unexpected moment was supplied by the students at Boston University — not the unworthy recipient of an honorary doctorate, David Michael Zaslav, the head of Warner Bros. Discovery. (Aside from the writers’ strike affecting his company, I cannot image what accomplishment or contribution to the greater good has he made that would warrant an honorary degree.)

He predictably supplied such inanities as: “You want to be successful, you’re going to have to figure out how to get along with everyone, and that includes difficult people,” he intoned. “Some people will be looking for a fight.” Especially those who object to paying $250 million to a CEO who loses billions.

Writers Guild of America picketers and even an airplane with a banner imploring Zaslav to “pay your writers” appeared. Students chimed in with their own “Pay your writers” chant. The students might have been more pointed. (“BU, 4 years of college and you give us this guy?”) It’s not hard to figure out that giving a millionaire alum an honorary degree is a (crass) way to raise money, but BU should have some standards. And it certainly should have had the foresight to “reschedule” his degree for a time when creative people were not on strike.

BU students deserve credit for not passively sitting in front of a corporate hack spewing platitudes. In making a fuss, they at least demonstrated they are paying attention to the world around them and taking others’ travails seriously. And maybe at next year’s graduation, BU will invite a worthy contributor to the arts, science, medicine, politics or social justice.

Something different

I spend a lot of time, both at home in D.C. and in my travels, in museums. The feast for the eyes and the brain gives me a charge, often spurring me to read up on a subject or plan other trips. Here are some of the best I have visited over the past year or so:

1. Mauritshuis in The Hague: Yes, it has “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” but also the most superb collection of Dutch Masters, any one of which would be the centerpiece of a smaller museum’s collection.

2. The American Natural History Museum in New York: As good as the “old collection,” the new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation is stunning — architecturally and in its interactive museum displays. This is how to engage young people (and their parents) in science.

3. The Ambrosiana in Milan: The Pinacoteca di Brera might be more famous, but this jewel provides a sampling of the best painting, sculpture and decorative objects not only from the Italian Renaissance but also from other eras.

4. The National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C.: Sobering, inspirational and, most of all, edifying, it operates on multiple levels. Anyone — young or old, knowledgeable or not — can find plenty to interest them. (Focused on the civil rights era and movements it inspired, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, N.C., and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta are must-see sites in those cities.)

5. The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon: One of the best private collections in the world, covering every continent and 5,000 years of art history. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the Aljube Museum, also in Lisbon and housed in the very location where prisoners were detained and tortured. Documenting the history of the Salazar dictatorship and the resistance, it provides many timely lessons.)

6. The Jewish Museum in Prague: A collection of synagogues, a ceremonial hall and a cemetery, this magnificent venue stands as witness to the rise and destruction of the Jewish community in the Czech Republic. Nothing quite compares to the Pinkas Synagogue in which the names of 78,000 Czech Jews murdered by the Nazis are inscribed on the walls.

From my weekly Q&A

Every Wednesday at noon, I host a live Q&A with readers. Read a transcript of this week’s Q&A, or submit a question for the next one.

Michael: Who might be the dark horse in the Republican primary next year? Feels like Tim Scott but not sure if there are donor whisperings that would indicate otherwise. Also, did [Donald] Trump sign the support pledge required by candidates? Or will that be ignored by the RNC?

Jennifer Rubin: I suspect Trump won’t explicitly promise to back anyone else, since he seems so certain that he’ll be the nominee. The RNC will be powerless to do anything about it. And frankly, no one already in the race is all that impressive. That leaves the door open for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who — wouldn’t you know it? — seems to be reconsidering a run.

MV: What lane is Tim Scott going to occupy? Now that Tim Scott has announced he’s running for president, I would just ask: What lane is he going to occupy? And while it’s not my place to tell Scott how to be Black, can we please remind people over and over that he has opposed all recent voting rights legislation? Even the late segregationist Strom Thurmond eventually voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.

Jennifer Rubin: I have no idea where Tim Scott thinks he will find voters pining for his presidency. He has neither the courage to denounce Trump as a threat to democracy nor the benefit of a productive agenda. In promising to restore faith, he panders to evangelicals more interested in waging a war on behalf of White nationalism and does offense to the First Amendment (establishment clause, anyone?). Maybe he thinks he’ll get to be vice president.