Florida school district bans dozens of books based on proposed bill
Schools in Clay County, Florida, are withholding dozens of books from students, citing legislation that has been proposed but not approved by the state legislature or signed into law.
In a spreadsheet published by the Clay County school district listing the status of challenged books, 55 titles were categorized as "Pending Legislative Update." A spokesperson for Clay County schools, Terri Dennis, told Popular Information that the "district is monitoring the current legislative session and stands prepared to comply with any statutory updates." Dennis confirmed that these titles are not being made available to students. In other words, the school district is anticipating new legal restrictions and is withholding titles even though they do not run afoul of current law.
Among books that are no longer available to students in Clay County because of this action are critically-acclaimed and award-winning novels, including A Fault In Our Stars, The Handmaid's Tale, and Story of a Girl.
The remarkable decision to remove books from shelves based on legislative proposals was made by the new Challenge Oversight Committee, a body created by the Clay County School Board on April 6. Previously, challenges were always considered by a five-person committee, known as the District Curriculum Council for Reconsideration, which included a student, a parent, and a school-based librarian. Now, the three-person Challenge Oversight Committee, comprised entirely of district administrators, is empowered to unilaterally remove books from shelves.
Under the new rules passed by the Clay County School Board, the Challenge Oversight Committee can: 1. reject a book challenge as frivolous, or 2. remove a book based on a determination that the book violates Florida's obscenity law or another statute. Additionally, the Challenge Oversight Committee can decide to refer the challenge to the larger District Curriculum Council for Reconsideration.
Nothing in the rules empowers the Challenge Oversight Committee to remove books from shelves based on bills that have been proposed but not enacted. The Challenge Oversight Committee meets in secret and produces no public report explaining its actions.
Popular Information asked Clay County schools what proposed legislation was the basis for withholding 55 books "Pending Legislative Update." The school district declined to answer.
It is likely that the Challenge Oversight Committee is removing books based on HB 1069, a piece of legislation introduced in February. The bill would ban from schools all books that contain "sexual conduct," which includes any "actual or simulated sexual intercourse," "masturbation," or "actual physical contact with a person’s clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks." HB 1069 was approved by the Florida House in March but has not been considered, much less approved, by the Florida Senate.
HB 1069 is likely unconstitutional. By excluding all books with any "sexual conduct," the bill would ban virtually all great works of literature — from The Odyssey to The Catcher in the Rye — from Florida schools. It also essentially rewrites the test delineated in Miller v. California, which allows the government to restrict obscene materials. In Miller, obscenity is narrowly defined as sexual content that "taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest" and "lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." HB 1069 bans all books with "sexual conduct" regardless of whether it appeals to prurient interests or the book's literary or artistic value.
Clay County schools, however, appear to be treating HB 1069 as if the bill is the law of the land. It is keeping A Fault In Our Stars off the shelves, even though the acclaimed book only briefly describes sex between the two main characters. Similarly, A Story of a Girl was a finalist for the National Book Award. The plot of A Story of a Girl does include a 13-year-old who has sex, but there are no descriptions or sex scenes. Neither book could be excluded under Florida's current law banning the distribution of obscenity to minors because neither book is obscene.
Three-person committee permanently bans 41 books
The Challenge Oversight Committee also permanently banned 41 books, citing Florida's obscenity laws. That statute prohibits providing a minor with any book that contains any "explicit and detailed verbal descriptions or narrative accounts of sexual excitement, or sexual conduct and that is harmful to minors."
The Challenge Oversight Committee's interpretation of this statute, however, is highly suspect. Among the books the Challenge Oversight Committee banned for violating Florida's obscenity laws was Julian is a Mermaid. That book is about a little boy who wants to dress up as a mermaid and go and see a Mermaid Parade. It contains no "sexual excitement," "sexual conduct," or any sex whatsoever. It is recommended by Common Sense Media, an independent non-profit that evaluates books and other entertainment for parents and schools, for children four and up. The Challenge Oversight Committee provided no explanation for banning Julian is a Mermaid or any other book.
The Challenge Oversight Committee also banned Ready Player One, the wildly popular science fiction novel. Common Sense Media gives Ready Player One a score of 1 out of 5 for "Sex and Nudity," its lowest rating. The book contains "some flirting and speculation of what the real bodies of the players might look like." At one point, a character purchases a blow-up sex doll and then returns it. The novel does not meet the standard of obscenity as defined by Florida law and Supreme Court precedent.
The man behind the bans
Virtually all of the books kept off the shelves by the Challenge Oversight Committee were challenged by Bruce Friedman, a conservative activist who moved to Clay County from New York in May 2021. Friedman compiled "a list of over 3,600 titles" that he said had "concerning content."
Popular Information obtained dozens of Friedman's challenge forms from Florida Freedom to Read, which acquired the documents through public information requests. Friedman, and a few others he recruited to assist him, filled out these forms identically. The reason for each request is to "PROTECT CHILDREN," the objectionable material is "INAPPROPRIATE CONTENT," and the impact of a student using the material is "DAMAGED SOULS." The answer to most other questions is "N/A."
Friedman is the president and founder of the Florida chapter of No Left Turn in Education, a right-wing educational group. No Left Turn in Education was founded in 2020 by Elana Yaron Fishbein. Fishbein says there are evil forces focused on "getting to our kids, brainwashing them, indoctrinating them, and making them [a] brownshirt." Friedman told Popular Information last year that he learned about Fishbein when she appeared on Tucker Carlson's show.
Friedman admitted that he filed challenges many challenges in the summer of 2022 without reading the books. He then adjusted his approach when Clay County began rejecting some challenges as incomplete. Friedman acknowledged he is not aware of any children who were exposed to objectionable content at a school library and had such content negatively impact their lives. But he claims that is irrelevant. "I don't have to know them," Friedman said. "It's all of them. Any poor kid who had the misfortune of coming across this material."
Now, the Challenge Oversight Committee has permanently or indefinitely removed nearly 100 books at Friedman's request. But Friedman is not satisfied. In a text message, Friedman tells Popular Information that he's "submitted an appeal request for all of the 159 books" that he challenged but the Challenge Oversight Committee voted to return to the shelves.
Friedman claims that the books banned this month by the Challenge Oversight Committee were "removed for blatant violations of the law." Asked why he believes Julian is a Mermaid violates Florida's obscenity law, Friedman declined to answer. Friedman added that he planned to "continue to reveal how much harm the ALA [American Library Association] and their Marxist drones and you have caused America's children."
"I'm not going away," Friedman added. "There's no harmony to be had. There is no middle ground at all."