How to ban 3600 books from school libraries
This year, at least 102 books have been removed from the shelves of school libraries in Clay County, Florida. Many of these books were pulled at the request of one man: Bruce Friedman. A conservative activist and longtime resident of New York, Friedman moved to Clay County this May.
And Friedman says he is just getting started. During a November 28 meeting of the Florida Department of Education Library Media Working Group, Friedman said he had compiled "a list of over 3,600 titles that I believe have concerning content," including "porn, critical race theory, social-emotional learning, [and] fluid gender." He said this list proves that "libraries have more than a little poison in them." Friedman demanded that the Department of Education "clean up this mess." If not, Friedman threatened to "perform 3,600 challenges and overwhelm your awful, awful procedures and policies."
One of the books pulled from the shelves of school libraries this year in Clay County is The Girl From The Sea, an award-winning graphic novel. The book is about a 15-year-old girl who develops romantic feelings for another girl. The two girls hold hands and, at one point, share a kiss. There is no sex, no swearing, and no nudity.
In an interview with Popular Information, Friedman described The Girl From The Sea as a book for "slightly post-pubescent little lesbians." Friedman says he objects to the book being available in Clay County libraries because students are "not in school to learn how to be better lesbians." The book exposes students to "a land of girls making out with great illustrations." According to Friedman, students should not be "focused on kissing, or petting or anything else in that general territory."
The Girl From The Sea has been removed from Clay County school libraries because of a new policy, implemented in July, that requires books to be pulled as soon as a challenge has been properly filed. The books remain unavailable to students while the challenge is being considered by a District Curriculum Council.
Friedman has exploited this policy by flooding the district with challenges. Friedman told Popular Information that, since June 30, he has "investigated between 5 and 10 thousand" books available in Clay County school libraries on "a very cursory level."
Popular Information has obtained dozens of Friedman's challenge forms through public information requests. Friedman, and a few others he recruited to assist him, filled out these forms identically. The reason for the 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. He continues to play a similar role for the group in New York. No Left Turn in Education was founded in 2020 by Elana Yaron Fishbein. "Public schools are starting to resemble re-education camps and our cities have turned into the killing fields," the group wrote on Facebook. "It's beginning to feel like Pol Pot's Cambodia." Fishbein says there are evil forces focused on "getting to our kids, brainwashing them, indoctrinating them, and making them [a] brownshirt." Friedman said he learned about Fishbein when she appeared on Tucker Carlson's show.
Friedman gained some notoriety himself when he attempted to read aloud a rape scene from the book Lucky by Alice Sebold during a June 30 Clay County school board meeting. His mic was cut off. Friedman told Fox News he wants "his 15-year-old son to be in the public school system and come home unharmed."
Friedman acknowledged that he filed challenges over the summer without reading the challenged books. Initially, Clay County accepted many of these challenges. But Friedman said he has already filed more than 350 challenges. Eventually, Clay County began to reject Friedman's challenges as incomplete because they do not include any real explanation of the objection.
But Friedman is undeterred and, in the hopes of getting more challenges accepted, said he has changed his approach. According to Friedman, he has read "25 books in the last 10 days." Friedman identified books to challenge by "scouring the internet" for lists of books that have been challenged elsewhere, including "a very conservative community" in Texas that "met with their superintendent" about "a couple of hundred books that concern them."
Friedman acknowledged he is not aware of any children who were exposed to objectionable content at a school library and had it 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."
Stephana Ferrell, the co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, blasted Clay County's policy of removing books from the library before any review. Ferrell told Popular Information that the procedure allowed a "singular viewpoint" to "control over what can and cannot be accessed or learned in the library."
According to Friedman, his challenges to books like The Girl from the Sea, are justified because it violates Florida law for the book to be available in school libraries. The relevant law is HB 1467, which was signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) last March.
The revised Clay County Procedures Manual for Library Media Services lays out the legal standard for library books under HB 1467:
● Free of pornography and material prohibited under s. 847.012
● Suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented
● Appropriate for the grade level and age group for which the materials are used or made available
Friedman said he did not believe The Girl From The Sea is pornographic. But, according to Friedman, it should be removed from the school library because it is "in very poor taste" and "sets a terrible example for our children, straight or gay." According to Friedman, the book promotes "promiscuity" and "pre-marital sex" when "we are supposed to be promoting abstinence."
Several of the books challenged by Friedman and others include LGBTQ themes but no sexual content. The Prince And The Dressmaker, for example, is about "a prince who likes to wear dresses." The Prince falls in love with a young woman. The book features one kiss.
Friedman cited the "Parental Rights Act," also known as the "Don't Say Gay" law, to justify these objections. "You don't want little children questioning their budding little bodies." Friedman said. He says that the inclusion of these books is part of an effort by librarians to encourage children to get "surgery and hormones." The Parental Rights Act, however, prohibits classroom instruction of elementary students about sexuality and gender. It does not apply to library books.
In the interview, Friedman said he is comfortable with "gay people" and "recognizes that they exist." Friedman said he lived for years in New York City, and "on very rare occasions, I would meet a sexually aggressive homosexual person and have words with them." But, for the most part, Friedman said he "got along fabulously with everyone."
Friedman said he doesn't have a problem with a book that has "gay characters" but "if the focus of the book is gayness, and it is still nonsexual, then I'd have to take it on a case-by-case basis." He believes the library should carry books that "support sturdy nuclear families."
Friedman also challenged Dear Martin, citing the Parental Rights Act. But Dear Martin does not have any LGBTQ content. Dear Martin is about "the story of an Ivy League-bound African American student named Justyce who becomes a victim of racial profiling." Friedman says the book should be removed because it promotes "the Black Lives Matter movement" and "a sense of white guilt in its musings about 'micro-aggressions' as elsewhere defined in Critical Race Theory."
Friedman may have been referring to the Stop WOKE Act, which prohibits instruction on Critical Race Theory in Florida classrooms. But, like the Parental Rights Act, the Stop WOKE Act applies to classroom instruction, not library books.
Despite this confusion about the legal standard, Friedman and others have already been able to permanently remove dozens of books from Clay County school libraries.
Tightening the screws on school librarians
Julie Miller, the chair of the Clay County Education Association Media Committee, has been the librarian for Ridgeview High School in Clay County for nine years. Miller told Popular Information she did not encounter a single challenge to a library book until November 2021.
Starting this year, groups like No Left Turn in Education began challenging library material en masse. School officials are fearful. Since March, Miller and other Clay County librarians have been prohibited from purchasing any new books or even new copies of books that are already on the shelves. According to Miller, no official explanation has been provided for the purchasing freeze.
Under Clay County's July 2022 policy, any challenge should be reviewed by a District Curriculum Council, a rotating panel of school officials. But when the challenges from Friedman and others started flooding in, the leadership of Clay County schools handled things differently.
Before the District Curriculum Council considered a challenge, Miller and her colleagues were pressured to determine if the books were eligible to be "weeded" or "deselected." Weeding and deselection are the standard processes that librarians use to remove books that are not in use, outdated, damaged, or not appropriate for students. The librarians were also reminded that, under Florida law, they could potentially be held personally liable for making "pornographic" material available to minors.
This process resulted in Clay County librarians agreeing to weed or deselect 52 books from school libraries. These included acclaimed titles like Toni Morrison's Beloved, Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. Clay County schools have published a list of filed challenges, including those that librarians agreed to weed/deselect.
But it soon became clear that the challenges from Friedman and other activists were just getting started. As the challenges rolled in, Miller said she wanted to change her mind and put several books she previously agreed to remove back into circulation. Typically, a decision to weed a book is not irreversible. A damaged book, for example, could be replaced by a new copy. But she was told by district officials that challenged books that librarians agreed to remove were permanently banned from all libraries in the district.
In response, Miller and some of her colleagues resolved not to weed out or deselect any additional challenged books in Clay County because they believe the system is being abused.
Thus far, five challenges have been reviewed by a District Curriculum Council. These panels voted to keep four of the books in schools. One panel voted to remove Julian Is A Mermaid from all schools. Julian Is A Mermaid is about a little boy who wants to dress up as a mermaid and go and see a Mermaid Parade. The council wrote that the message of the book is that "you can be whatever you want to be." According to the council, this is a "good message," but they voted to remove the book because it is "maybe not the best way to do it."
The council rejected Friedman's challenge to Dear Martin, voting unanimously to allow the book to remain available in high school libraries. While the book does contain some coarse language, it was "realistic" and appropriate for teenagers.
Friedman has vowed to appeal all rejections to the district superintendent and, if necessary, to the Clay County School Board. He has reason to believe that his appeal may be successful. Friedman says that, during November's election, we "got rid of two people" who opposed his efforts. He was "extremely supportive of two newly elected board members that I think sufficiently leaned towards protecting children."
The goal, according to Friedman, is to use Clay County library to "set a good example for what a clean library looks like" for Florida and the country. If anyone gets in his way, Friedman vowed to "run over them like a dead body."