"Statewide book bans" are coming to Florida's classrooms, enforced by the far right

Florida Republicans were asked to promise that banned books would not literally be burned. They voted that down

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published October 1, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Shot of a shelf with books in an empty library (Getty Images/LumiNola)
Shot of a shelf with books in an empty library (Getty Images/LumiNola)

In early August, a video posted on TikTok by a Tennessee elementary school teacher went viral. The teacher was sitting on the floor of her classroom, before a bookshelf containing hundreds of slim books — a collection normally available to students if they finish their classwork early. But according to a new Tennessee law, the "Age Appropriate Materials Act," she was required to catalog every book in her classroom, then send it for several rounds of review and post a final list of approved books online for parents to scrutinize, before she could allow her students to read any of them. In the close to 14,000 comments the video received, a common theme emerges: "And people wonder why teachers are leaving in droves."  

As of this week, it seems likely that teachers in Florida will be placed in a similar situation. This March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a policy, HB1467, that bans schools from using any books that are "pornographic" or age "inappropriate," and allows parents broad access to review and challenge all books and materials used for instruction or in school libraries.

In combination with other recent laws restricting public schools from discussing LGBTQ issues or racism — including Florida's 2022 "Don't Say Gay" law (HB 1557) and "Stop WOKE Act" (HB7) and its 2021 ban on teaching "Critical Race Theory" — this has led some school districts to advise teachers to box up their classroom libraries until each book is vetted. Others have instructed teachers to stop buying or accepting donated books for their classrooms until at least January, to give the district time to hire mandatory new staff to serve as "media specialists" who review each title.

As Book Riot reported in July, the new requirements are so confusing that "each district is interpreting them differently." In Palm Beach County, the district provided teachers with a checklist to assess their collections: did they have books (usually about LGBTQ characters or issues) that had already been flagged for review? Does a book "explicitly instruct" about sexual orientation or gender identity? Does a book promote the ideas that "People are racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously," that people should feel guilty about things members of their race or sex did in the past, or that systemic racism exists in the U.S.?  

On Monday, the Florida Department of Education posted a new proposed rule for meeting the requirements online, clarifying that the restrictions apply only to traditional public schools (not taxpayer-funded charters) and that they do include classroom libraries. 

Over the last month, Florida teachers have been sharing examples of the culling process on social media, with multiple examples of books featuring Black characters being cut, while books about Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims, Dick Cheney and Pope John Paul II are allowed. On Facebook, a mother in the Indian River County school district posted a photograph from her daughter's classroom of a wall of bookshelves roped off with pink tape, with all the books reversed so the spines didn't show. The mother told a local reporter that the teacher was close to tears as she explained she was worried she'd get in trouble if parents complained about her classroom library. 

As the statewide anti-censorship organization Florida Freedom to Read Project has documented, there was good reason for that teacher to be afraid: in Indian River, teachers had been given the option either to close their classroom libraries or sign an electronic form confirming their collections complied with all new laws, potentially transferring all legal liability to them.

This week, Florida Freedom to Read co-founder Stephana Ferrell spoke with Salon about developments around book banning in the state. 

There's a lot going on right now with book bans in Florida. Could you give me an overview? 

It started in 2017 with the Florida Citizens Alliance. They drafted a change to an existing law, which limited challenges against books to parents. Their change allowed any citizen to do so, and in 2018, they started making challenges against what they considered "woke curriculum," which at that time was climate change curriculum in science books. Then it morphed into pornography in schools. Their earliest list had 14 to 18 books on it; now they've put out a list that has well over 100. We filed a public records request and found 27 counties that said Florida Citizens Alliance had reached out with their list of books, asked for an inventory of which schools had them, then asked for them to be removed. 

In 2021, Florida Citizens Alliance announced a partnership with Moms for Liberty and County Citizens Defending Freedom. Then those groups began submitting the same challenges throughout the state. In some more conservative counties, the superintendents or the district legal counsel said, "Just pull the books." In one county, they put advisory labels on 115 books. So there's a parental advisory label now on books like "And Tango Makes Three" and "Everywhere Babies" — picture books that merely mention same-sex animal couples or same-sex parents.

The national narrative that all this started because of COVID and parents waking up to what was available in schools is just not true. This effort started in 2017. In 2018, two leaders from the Florida Citizens Alliance served on [Gov. Ron DeSantis'] education transition team, along with a superintendent who had pulled all the books from their list, and a school board member from Miami who had protested sex education books. 

The ultimate goal is parents moving their kids — using taxpayer dollars — over to private, for-profit education where they're not subjected to teaching about sex ed or evolution.

And this whole narrative of not trusting the curriculum or what's available in our libraries serves the purpose of creating distrust in our public education system. Florida Citizens Alliance's ultimate goal is parents moving their kids — using taxpayer dollars — over to private, for-profit education where they're not subjected to teaching about sex ed or evolution. On their website, they critique the public education system as being too "woke" and going too far from American values and morals. In their reviews, they protest LGBTQ+ subject matter as being entirely inappropriate in K-12 schools. There's no level of inclusion of LGBTQ people in the conversation or in library books that will ever be OK for them. 

What else is being targeted under that label of obscenity?

Moms for Liberty's list of "Pornography and Critical Race Theory Books" includes books with Black characters as examples of CRT, especially if there is a narrative about police violence. In Escambia County, a teacher has just challenged 117 books, and her list has more than a few books she describes as prejudiced and racist, such as a children's book about a Black female basketball player. They say that HB 7, the "Stop Woke Act," allows them to protest books that feature strong Black characters. They say HB 1557 is the reason they can protest picture books about LGBTQ+ people. And that's just not the case, because those two laws do not have anything to do with library books. They're about the appropriateness of classroom curriculum or discussion. They don't talk about what's appropriate for an individual student to choose for themselves to read on their own time. Those are two very different definitions: What's considered appropriate for a captured audience in the classroom and what's considered appropriate for an individual looking to find characters that reflect who they are. 

Depending how an individual district interprets the law, media specialists are also being assigned responsibility to approve books in classroom libraries as well as school libraries. What the Florida DOE just proposed is that all classroom libraries fall under the guidelines, which would mean the media specialist is then responsible for approving every single book in every single classroom that's available to a student at any time, in addition to what's available in the library. If that goes through, we'll see classroom libraries shut down across the state, because there aren't enough media specialists. 

You're talking about withholding books from students for a very long time while this gets worked out. It's all at the expense of our kids, and under the notion that parents want this much restriction of their kids. 

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But that's not true. In Pinellas County, our colleague had a teacher send home a letter to parents saying, "I have 200 books in my classroom library. I don't have a list of all 200, but I have books that are inclusive, covering these topics. Here's a permission slip. Would you like your child to have full access to this library, or would you prefer they only take books out of the school library every other week?" Those were the options that teacher presented, for the sake of appeasing parental rights. And every single kid was opted into the full classroom library. 

We see teachers across the state handling it in different ways and we see districts handling it in different ways. In Indian River County, they sent out a checklist regarding what restrictions had to be on classroom library books. They said if there's a child in a book that's questioning their gender or sexual orientation and you're in a K-3 classroom, you should remove that book. If there is a book that would possibly make a child feel guilt based on their race or gender, that book should be removed and reviewed. Then they asked all the teachers to certify and take full liability for what's in their classroom library, or not offer one.

The union in Indian River particularly wants to protect their teachers, because the Moms for Liberty chapter there basically led a course on how to teach your kids to find CRT or violations of HB 1557 in their classrooms. These parents are actively looking to file complaints in regards to these laws, and they're enlisting their children to help. 

Does it seem like a foregone conclusion that the DOE's proposed new rule on classroom libraries will be passed? 

Yes. It's hard not to be doomsday about it. I sat through hours and hours of House and Senate debate over all three bills where amendments were proposed to make the laws clearer, and they were shot down time and time again. There was one amendment proposed for 1467 that was just a promise that books would not be burned. Republicans voted that down. There was another amendment proposed on 1557, to change the language from sexual orientation and gender identity to human sexuality, saying that human sexuality would not be taught in K-3 classrooms. They voted that down because, as the bill's sponsor said on the floor of the Senate, that would negate what the bill was trying to do.  

This new training may create an algorithm that no longer takes into account the value of the literary work as a whole, but rates books based on excerpts of sexual situations: maybe 60 words out of hundreds of thousands.

The worst thing about 1467 is what happens at the end of the year. Any book that a school received an objection about needs to be reported to the Florida DOE by every single district. Then the DOE compiles a list and sends it back to the districts for curation and collection decision making in the upcoming year. When the bill's Senate sponsor was asked about that in committee, he said that after the Florida DOE reviewed the list, they would send out a list to ensure statewide consistency. So we are talking about statewide book bans. We are talking about the most conservative voices, who have raised an obscene number of objections to a wide variety of books, having more say than those who would prefer their children have access to a broad range of ideas and information. 

You've also warned about a new program for training the media specialists who will be tasked with doing these reviews. 

The DOE has created a working group to develop the new training that will be required for our media specialists. Two of the people selected for this committee are Moms for Liberty chapter chairs. Another is a self-proclaimed "Mama for DeSantis." They met this week with a media specialist team that was put together from very red counties. Meanwhile, one of our colleagues at Florida Freedom to Read Project was actually nominated by her superintendent to be on this committee, and she didn't even get a call-back. So we know they handpicked at least three of the members representing the "parent voice," two of whom are advocating in their districts for a rating system to be used when evaluating books. 

Our fear is that this new training will basically create an algorithm that no longer takes into account the value of the literary work as a whole but instead would rate books specifically based upon excerpts of sexual situations. So it would eliminate books based upon minor references — maybe 60 words out of the hundreds of thousands of words in a book. 

When we look at our English literature standards for the state, that list is 300 books. The only religious textbook referenced on it is the Bible. The list is 70% by white authors, and a majority of the books were written prior to the 21st century, before we started to see widespread representation increase for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC authors. So you can imagine how much we're cutting out and how, almost systematically, that list protects the classic white voices that everybody has grown up with and leaves out a lot of modern literature and more diverse voices. 

Are people in Florida paying attention to all this? 

I would like to say yes, but there's a majority of parents who aren't. It's evident in the new opt-out systems that some districts came up with. In several districts, when parents were given the opportunity to either opt out or restrict their child's reading, 97% of the parents did not turn in the form, which defaulted in those cases to their child having full access to the library. Currently less than half of one percent of students in Osceola County are restricted in library access by their parents. In Flagler and Polk counties, only 0.15% of students were restricted. 

A child's right to see a book on the shelves that represents them or their family is getting taken away. That's not a culture war. That's hurting real people.

But in Indian River County, where Moms for Liberty is probably most active, the default option was no checkout access to the library until you turn in the form. A month went by and they still had 13,000 out of 17,000 students whose parents hadn't turned in the form. But even in very red, highly-active Moms for Liberty territory, only 5 to 10% of parents opted to restrict their students in various ways. The other 90% either didn't turn in forms or had full access to the library. 

I think when parents opt their kids into public school, they're mostly making the decision to opt them into all of the school's offerings. Most parents naturally think, why do I have to opt my child into access in the library? So that 13,000, for us, represents the parents that are just not tuned in to this issue. 

Is the question of reading access at a tipping point in Florida? 

Yes. The leader of Florida Citizens Alliance was recently quoted saying they're not happy with how the districts are responding; they're not taking enough action to remove these books, and the group wants to put more teeth in the laws in the next legislative session. They're not a huge group. They don't bring in a ton of money. But they have the governor's ear. It feels very overwhelming. We see how weighted it is against the general consensus of parents, which is more access to information, not less; restrict your own kids, stay away from mine. 

With November looming, every time I read a national article that chalks this up as "culture war," it tears the parents and educators in our group apart. Because it's not a culture war. These are rights; this is authoritarian. A culture war is something that can be dismissed when people don't get hurt. But we've had an increase in bullying. In Gainesville, there was vandalism of both the LGBTQ+ support center as well as another inclusive building. There's so much happening where people are getting hurt and rights are getting restricted. The right for a child to see a book on the library shelves that represents them or their family is getting taken away. That's not a culture war. That's hurting real people. It feels more like an existential crisis every single day. 

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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