JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Two years after a wave of book bans began across the United States, Florida is a hot spot in the clash over appropriate reading material for children, with laws that have greatly expanded the state’s ability to restrict the books.
Historically, books were challenged one at a time. While bans in schools and libraries began to increase nationwide in 2021, efforts were largely local, led by a parent or group. But over the past year, access to books, especially those dealing with race, gender or sexual orientation, has become increasingly politicized. This was accompanied by an increase in legislation and regulations in some states and school districts that affected the books libraries could offer.
The shift is particularly evident in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican-controlled legislature and a rapidly growing network of conservative groups lined up to pass three state laws last year aimed, at least in part, at reading or educational material. Among the books withdrawn from circulation in one of the state’s school districts are “Beloved” by Toni Morrison and “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.
The policies have energized Mr. DeSantis’ supporters and are part of the platform from which he is expected to run for president.
Proponents of the restrictions say their goals are to protect students from inappropriate content and give parents more control over their children’s education. By focusing on ‘parents’ rights’, Mr DeSantis is trying to capitalize on the popularity he garnered when he resisted Covid-19 restrictions, particularly in schools. The push is a hallmark part of the conservatism he showcases in Florida. Its Parental Rights in Education Act, for example, limits teaching about gender and sexuality, leading some districts to remove books featuring LGBTQ characters.
Some teachers and librarians say the policies are vague, with imprecise language and general requirements, leading to confusion. But they try to comply. Violating the law could be a third degree felony; in general, these crimes are punishable by up to five years in prison
In January, when the new guidelines took effect, some teachers removed or concealed books that had not been checked by certified media specialists, whose approval is now legally required. Others don’t order titles that might elicit complaints. Some educators emptied shelves or pulled collections until titles could be reassessed.
“It’s a whole new level of fear,” said Kathleen Daniels, president of the Florida Association for Media in Education, a professional organization for school librarians and media educators. “There are books that are not selected because they have been challenged.”
Florida ranks second, behind Texas, as the state with the most book takedowns, according to a report released Thursday by free speech organization PEN America, which has been tracking bans on books in schools from July 1 through December 31, 2022. But PEN said Florida’s broad approach at the state level, with “wholesale bans” that restrict access to “untold numbers of books in classrooms and school libraries,” made it difficult to quantify the true extent of book removals in the state.
Many of the new restrictions stem from a law passed last year that requires trained media specialists to assess each textbook to ensure it is age-appropriate and free of “pornographic” content. The law also requires schools to maintain an online searchable database of books in their libraries and classrooms.
The bill goes further. In March, Florida House passed a bill that could require schools to quickly remove a book based on a single complaint from a parent or county resident that the book depicted sexual behavior. Under the proposed bill, the book would remain unavailable until the complaint is resolved.
Two other laws contribute to book bans in Florida schools. The Stop WOKE Act prohibits instructions that could make students feel guilty or responsible for the past actions of other members of their race. The Parents’ Rights in Education Act prohibits classroom teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in some elementary grades; a state rule is expected to extend restrictions through 12th grade.
Efforts by Florida’s 67 public school districts to put the new regulations into practice have been uneven and often chaotic. Some districts have taken no major action. Others enacted blanket deletions that essentially emptied libraries.
Earlier this year, shortly after the new guidelines for libraries were released in January, some districts moved quickly to comply. In Duval County, home to Jacksonville, the public school district has restricted access to more than a million titles, keeping them out of students’ reach until they are reviewed by specialists. In Manatee County on Florida’s Gulf Coast, some teachers boxed their classroom libraries or covered their shelves. Officials in Martin County, on the state’s Atlantic coast, removed about 150 books from school circulation in January and February, including John Green’s “Looking for Alaska” and James Patterson’s “Maximum Ride,” a series of sci-fi adventure books for readers. 10 and up, who were taken out of elementary schools.
Mr Patterson, who lives in Palm Beach, Florida, called the removal of his books “scary”.
“When you can take a mainstream series like ‘Maximum Ride’ and pull it off the shelves,” he said, “it shows no one is safe.” A county spreadsheet gave no specific reason for the withdrawal from the series.
The training material advised media specialists to think about how they would feel reading aloud passages from the book in question. “If you are not comfortable reading the material in a public place,” said a state Department of Education slide show, “then you should look into not making the material available in a children’s school library”.
Jennifer Pippin leads a local chapter of the Moms for Liberty group in Florida and was on the Department of Education panel that helped design the training materials. She said books that had been removed from state school libraries should not be considered “banned” because they remained available in public libraries and bookstores.
Young people in a school library might pick up a book with a graphic rape scene, she said, because they enjoyed other volumes in the same series. Or a child interested in penguins could open a book about a penguin family with two fathers. But “it may not be right for them by their parents’ standards,” she said. “In the absence of parental instructions or guidance, some of these things could indeed be harmful.
In Duval County, the school district in January asked the district’s 54 media specialists to begin reviewing the more than 1.6 million titles. Unapproved books, elementary school teachers said, had to be covered up or set aside.
About 25,000 books had gone through the review process earlier this month. The ongoing process has left more than 129,000 Duval County students with access to only a tiny fraction of available titles, critics said.
“Our books are shadow banned,” said Nina Perez, a Jacksonville resident and director of MomsRising, an advocacy organization opposing the restrictions. “They get bogged down in an administrative process.”
Tracy Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Duval School District, said in an email last month that the actions followed state Department of Education guidelines. At no time should classrooms have run out of reading materials, she said, since students always had access to approved books and collections. She acknowledged that “a small number of managers had closed or over-restricted” press centers briefly and were asked to restore access.
Mr. DeSantis reacted aggressively to criticism that public schools are banning books. He dismissed reports that Duval County schools removed a headline about baseball player Roberto Clemente as “a joke”, accusing critics of “fabricating” a narrative about book bans.
The book, which deals with the racism Mr Clemente faced, was removed and then restored in February after a review. Last month, the state education commissioner named Jonah Winter’s “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates” book of the month for students in grades three through five.
At a press conference last month, Mr DeSantis stood behind a sign that read ‘Expose book ban hoax’ and said the state was trying to protect children from the material pornographic. The event began with a presentation on the books flagged to the districts for deletion – including “Gender Queer”, by Maia Kobabe and “Flamer”, by Mike Curato – and highlighted scenes on sexual contact and masturbation. .
“This idea of a book ban in Florida, that somehow they don’t want books in the library — it’s a hoax,” DeSantis said. “And it really is a nasty hoax, because it’s a hoax in the service of trying to pollute and sexualize our children.”
Critics of the state push back. In March, Democracy Forward, an advocacy organization, filed a lawsuit with the state on behalf of the Florida Education Association and other groups challenging the rules, arguing they censor educators, limit access students to books and harm public education. The Florida Freedom to Read Project held a rally in Tallahassee last month with authors and free speech activists to protest censorship.
After Jacksonville substitute teacher Brian Covey posted a video in january of empty library shelves at a college in Duval County, a reporter asked Mr. DeSantis about it. The governor called the video a “false narrative.” Mr. Covey, who lost his job soon after, said he was troubled that Mr. DeSantis and the school district tried to delegitimize what he had documented.
The fact that they called it a false narrative, Mr. Covey said, “tells me that they have no intention of saying, ‘We made a mistake’.”