Why is Florida No. 1 in book bans?

Florida is responsible for 72% of the book banning incidents tracked nationwide between July and December of 2023, according to a recent report by PEN America. That’s more than 3,000 trackable restrictions on student library access.

The same week PEN America released its report, Gov. Ron DeSantis called the concerning levels of censorship “performative” and “political,” blaming “activists.”

And just a few days later, at the Florida Board of Education meeting on April 17, it was time to blame the educators. After Board members Christie Grazie and Kelly Garcia accused Florida’s educators of engaging in political stunts when they covered their classroom libraries, Chair Ben Gibson stated, “whether they were stunts, whether they were people not understanding — call it what it is.”

So, let’s call it what it is (because they definitely didn’t): These are red herrings. The state is well aware that the objections overwhelming school districts are from those who are serious about removing the books from schools.

While it’s true that some of the censorship is coming from scared educators, “erring on the side of caution,” it’s the result of chilling-effect legislation state leaders have put in place. Educators, like in Escambia County, set aside countless hours they didn’t have to review books no one was objecting to — believing the laws and rules forced them to limit student access in their libraries until full compliance was verified.

So why are educators throughout the state feeling the need to comb through every book on school shelves?

More than 2,500 of Florida’s recorded incidents came from three districts, and none of them went through their respective Board-approved objection policies. Escambia County led the state, followed by Orange and Collier counties. While the large numbers caught people’s attention, it was the titles DeSantis couldn’t ignore: Webster’s dictionaries, “Brave New World,” “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” “Anna Karenina,” and even “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”

When faced with calls to fix this gross level of censorship, the Governor said the law doesn’t prohibit access to “normal books that have been in education for years.” Except he forgot to add something important. These titles were pulled for internal review because district staff were led to believe that’s exactly what DeSantis-backed HB 1069 required.

Why?

Guidance on the law from the Florida Department of Education (October 2023) confused prohibited content with selection criteria by using the phrase “must not contain.” This led districts to review all library materials ahead of objections from the community.

In fact, just last week, Collier County Schools reconfirmed a list of more than 300 titles that have been permanently removed due to descriptions of sexual conduct — titles like “The Color Purple,” “The Sun Also Rises,” and “Invisible Man.”

But, there could be some light at the end of this very dark tunnel. During the April 17 Board meeting, an exchange between Chancellor Burns and Chair Gibson is clarifying. Chair Gibson asks the question, “Can you just give us an idea of what the categories of prohibitions in that statute (1006.28) are?”

As Chancellor Paul Burns nears the end of his answer, his language reveals that the law outlines “a reason that someone may object to a material,” not a list of prohibited material.

In other words, Burns corrected the record. HB 1069 updated the reasons why someone may object to a book — not why books must be permanently removed.

If the Florida Department of Education would ensure this is crystal clear to all district leaders, we could return to a time where books remain on the shelf until they are subject to a formal reconsideration process. We could reverse decisions that permanently banned books without considering context and literary value. And we could release the purchase restrictions that broadly and unfairly avoid adding books with “controversial topics” to our collections.

Florida continues to provide a cautionary tale to the rest of the nation on how censorship can thrive under loose laws, irresponsible state leadership, and a misled public. It’s where the ability to spin is more important than the ability to manage, where the idea that “Florida education is the best in the nation” is underscored when classroom libraries are papered over, and where “normal” is defined and protected by a partisan government, and everything else can be quietly removed.

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Editor’s note: Author Stephana Ferrell is the Director of Research and Insight for the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which opposes censorship in schools. Co-author Dr. Tasslyn Magnusson is an author and research consultant for PEN America and EveryLibrary. The opinions contained in this writing are their own.




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