Florida book bans could flourish under new rule, critics say

Soon after Gov. Ron DeSantis and his staff denounced several books found in school libraries as “shocking, graphic” and not suitable for children, Orange County Public Schools pulled two of those volumes from its campus libraries.

“State identification as not appropriate,” reads the district website explaining the removals of “This Book is Gay” and “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being A Human.”

School leaders in Collier, Marion and Volusia counties did the same for another book the governor criticized, with Volusia yanking “Flamer” within weeks of the governor’s March 8 press conference — despite its own review committee deciding it was a well-done book and voting to keep it on the shelves.

For critics of book bans, which increased sharply in Florida and across the nation this school year, the power of the state’s denunciations to compel districts to pull books from their shelves — after, in their view, falsely labeling them as pornographic — is troubling. And they fear such moves are likely to increase next school year.

The State Board of Education on Wednesday approved rules for a new Florida “annual objection report” that aims to catalog every book challenge lodged in every school district, list what books were removed from school libraries and then share it with all 67 school districts. Districts must provide information to the state by June 30, and the state will publish the report by August 30.

The report will provide “increased protection against inappropriate materials being in the hands of our students,” said Paul Burns, chancellor of the Florida Department of Education’s division of public schools, at the board’s meeting in Hialeah.

And, Burns said, it will let residents see what books were challenged and how districts responded. “It will continue to provide transparency for the public,” he added.

Stephana Ferrell, a founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, has a different take. The group, formed to oppose book bans, doesn’t think children need to be protected from library books and fears the new report will become a guidebook for more, and uncalled for, book challenges, with districts feeling pressured to remove books from their shelves if others did.

“Oh, this district found it inappropriate, so I guess we should find it inappropriate,” the Orange County mother said.

The group, which is tracking book challenges statewide, already thinks too many books are being removed from shelves “where students deserved the right to find them, if they desired to read about those topics,” Ferrell said.

Florida Freedom to Read obtained documents from the Volusia school district’s review of “Flamer” and shared them with the Orlando Sentinel.

The award-winning book features a 14-year-old boy dealing with bullies and feelings of self-loathing as he wrestles with being gay, Catholic and biracial. It includes crude language and some of its comic-book style drawings depict sexual activities.

But most of Volusia’s reviewers found the language realistic and the book well-done.  The committee members, who included district educators, parents and community members, voted 7-1 to keep it in high school libraries, with some viewing as appropriate for 8th graders, too.

“The way he navigates these challenges could provide hope to those who read the book,” wrote a school principal asked to review the novel.

“Real world context that is relatable and realistic,” wrote another reviewer.

But the book was removed from the district libraries in late March, said Danielle Johnson, a school district spokesperson, in an email. “The decision was made to remove Flamer because the content violates the state statute,” she wrote.

On March 8, DeSantis held a press conference to say his administration wasn’t banning books but also to denounce some volumes parents had found in school libraries. His staff also posted a video on Twitter with pictures from some of those books, including “Flamer.”

The video names the school districts where it says parents discovered troubling books.  “What was found was shocking, graphic and we warn you … is not appropriate for children.”

PEN America, a literary organization that defends free expression, noted a sharp rise in school book bans in the first semester of the 2022-23 school year, with Florida second behind Texas in the number of bans recorded. The group counted 357 in the Sunshine State in a report published April 30.

The group’s report also noted many of the books challenged were wrongly called “pornographic” or “indecent” when “they do not remotely fit the well-established legal and colloquial definitions of ‘pornography.”’

That topic seemed to be on Grazia Christie’s mind as the state board discussed the new report requirements. Christie, appointed to the board by DeSantis last year, wanted to know how quickly challenged books could be removed from schools.

“I mean, I can imagine a scenario where you find an objectionable book and you know that your third-grader has access to it, and you’re worried about every day that goes by that your third-grader is walking by that pornographic book, for instance,” she said.

PEN America also is part of a federal lawsuit filed this month against the Escambia County school district that challenges as unconstitutional the removal of books, arguing books about LGBTQ and non-white characters are mostly the ones yanked from shelves as the district imposes an “orthodoxy of opinion” on its library collections. The publishing company Penguin Random House, several authors and some parents joined the lawsuit.

PEN America said book bans escalated in 2021, pushed by conservative parent groups that targeted multiple books in multiple school systems. These efforts have been “supercharged” by new state laws, it said.

Florida’s “annual objection report” was required by a 2022 law that aimed to provide more scrutiny of school libraries. This year, the Legislature passed a law that makes book challenges easier, as it says if parents cannot read a book out loud at a school board meeting it should be pulled and requires that any accusation of sexual content means almost immediate removal.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.



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