Florida at Center of Debate as School Book Bans Surge Nationally
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Two years into a surge of book bans across the United States, Florida is a hot spot in the clash over what reading material is appropriate for children, with laws that have greatly expanded the state’s ability to restrict books.
Historically, books were challenged one at a time. As bans in schools and libraries began increasing nationally in 2021, efforts were largely local, led by a parent or a group. But over the past year, access to books, particularly those touching on race, gender or sexual orientation, became increasingly politicized. With that came an increase in legislation and regulations in some states and school districts that affected which 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 aligned to pass three state laws last year aimed, at least in part, at reading or educational materials. Among the books removed from circulation in one of the state’s school districts are Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The policies have energized Mr. DeSantis’s supporters and are part of the platform from which he is expected to run for president.
Proponents of the restrictions say their aims are to protect students from inappropriate materials and to give parents more control over their children’s education. In focusing on “parents’ rights,” Mr. DeSantis is trying to build on the popularity he amassed when he resisted Covid-19 restrictions, particularly in schools. The push is a signature part of the conservatism he is showcasing in Florida. His Parental Rights in Education law, for example, constrains instruction on gender and sexuality, which has led some districts to remove books with L.G.B.T.Q. characters.
Some teachers and librarians say the policies are vague, with imprecise language and broad requirements, leading to some confusion. But they are trying to comply. Violation of the law could be a third-degree felony; in general, such crimes are punishable by up to five years in prison
In January, when the new guidelines went into effect, some teachers removed or covered up books that had not been vetted by certified media specialists, whose approval is now legally required. Others are not ordering titles that could draw complaints. Some educators emptied shelves or pulled collections until the titles could be reassessed.
“It is a whole new level of fear,” said Kathleen Daniels, the president of the Florida Association for Media in Education, a professional organization for school librarians and media educators. “There are books that are not being selected because they have been challenged.”
Florida ranks second, behind Texas, as the state with the highest number of book removals, according to a report released on Thursday from the free-speech organization PEN America, which tracked book bans in schools from July 1 to Dec. 31 of 2022. But PEN said that Florida’s broad, state-level approach, with “wholesale bans” that restrict access to “untold numbers of books in classrooms and school libraries,” made the true extent of book removals in the state difficult to quantify.
Many of the new restrictions come from a law passed last year that requires trained media specialists to evaluate each school book to ensure it is age-appropriate and free of “pornographic” content. The law also requires schools to keep a searchable online database of the books in their libraries and classrooms.
Proposed legislation goes further. In March, the Florida House passed a bill that could require schools to remove a book promptly based on a single complaint from a parent or county resident that the book depicted sexual conduct. Under the proposed bill, the book would remain unavailable until the complaint was resolved.
Two other laws are contributing to book bans in Florida schools. The Stop WOKE Act prohibits instruction that could make students feel guilty or responsible for the past actions of other members of their race. The Parents Rights in Education law prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in some elementary grades; a state rule is expected to expand the 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 removals that essentially gutted libraries.
Earlier this year, soon after the new guidelines for libraries were issued in January, some districts moved quickly to comply. In Duval County, home to Jacksonville, the public school district restricted access to more than a million titles, keeping them out of students’ hands until they were vetted by specialists. In Manatee County, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, some teachers boxed up their classroom libraries or covered their shelves. Officials in Martin County, on the state’s Atlantic Coast, removed around 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 ages 10 and up, which were pulled from elementary schools.
Mr. Patterson, who lives in Palm Beach, Fla., called the removal of his books “frightening.”
“When you can take a mainstream series like ‘Maximum Ride’ and take it off the shelves,” he said, “it shows that no one is safe.” A county spreadsheet gave no specific reason for the series’ removal.
Training material advised media specialists to consider how they would feel reading passages from the book in question aloud. “If you would not be comfortable reading the material in a public setting,” said a slide show by the state’s Department of Education, “then you should lean towards not making the material available in a school library for children.”
Jennifer Pippin leads a local chapter of the group Moms for Liberty in Florida and was on the Department of Education panel that helped design the training materials. She said books that had been removed from school libraries in the state should not be considered “banned” because they remained available at public libraries and in bookstores.
Young people in a school library might happen to pick up a book that contains a graphic rape scene, she said, because they enjoyed other volumes in the same series. Or a child interested in penguins might open a book about a penguin family with two dads. But “it may not be appropriate for them per their parents’ standards,” she said. “With no instruction or parental guidance, some of these things could indeed be harmful.”
In Duval County, the school district asked the district’s 54 media specialists in January to begin reviewing the more than 1.6 million titles. Unapproved books, elementary teachers were told, had to be covered or set aside.
About 25,000 books had cleared the review process as of early this month. The ongoing process has left Duval County’s more than 129,000 students with access to only a tiny fraction of available titles, critics said.
“Our books are being shadow-banned,” said Nina Perez, a Jacksonville resident and a director for MomsRising, an advocacy organization opposing the restrictions. “They get mired in an administrative process.”
Tracy Pierce, a Duval school district spokeswoman, said in an email last month that the actions had followed guidance from the state’s Department of Education. At no time should classrooms have been without reading material, she said, since students still had access to approved books and collections. She acknowledged that “a small number of principals did close or overly restrict” media centers briefly and were advised to restore access.
Mr. DeSantis has reacted aggressively to criticism that public schools are banning books. He dismissed news reports that Duval County schools had removed a title about the baseball player Roberto Clemente as “a joke,” accusing critics of “manufacturing” a narrative about book bans.
The book, which addresses the racism that Mr. Clemente faced, was removed and then restored in February after a review. Last month, the state’s education commissioner named the title, “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates” by Jonah Winter, a book of the month for third through fifth grades.
At a news conference last month, Mr. DeSantis stood behind a sign that read “Exposing the Book Ban HOAX” and said that the state was trying to protect children from pornographic material. The event began with a presentation on books reported to districts for removal — including “Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe and “Flamer,” by Mike Curato — and highlighted scenes about sexual contact and masturbation.
“This idea of a book ban in Florida, that somehow they don’t want books in the library — that’s a hoax,” Mr. DeSantis said. “And that’s really a nasty hoax, because it’s a hoax in service of trying to pollute and sexualize our children.”
Critics in the state are pushing 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 that they censor educators, limit students’ access to books and harm public education. The Florida Freedom to Read Project organized a rally in Tallahassee last month with authors and free speech activists to protest censorship.
After Brian Covey, a substitute teacher in Jacksonville, posted a video in January of empty library shelves at a Duval County middle school, a reporter asked Mr. DeSantis about it. The governor called the video a “fake narrative.” Mr. Covey, who lost his job shortly after, said that 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.’”