Moms for Liberty members call the cops on Florida librarians
Two members of Moms for Liberty, a right-wing activist group, have reported several Florida school librarians to law enforcement. They claimed they had evidence that librarians were distributing "pornography" to minors and requested that law enforcement officers be dispatched. This represents a serious escalation of the tactics deployed by members of Moms for Liberty against school librarians.
On October 25, Jennifer Tapley, a member of the Santa Rosa County chapter of Moms for Liberty and a candidate for school board, contacted the Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office. "I've got some evidence a crime was committed," Tapley said in an audio recording of the call obtained by Popular Information through a public records request. "Pornography given to a minor in a school. And I would like to make a report with somebody and turn over the evidence." Tapley made the call from the lobby of the main office of the Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office in Milton, Florida.
She told the dispatcher that she did not want to provide her name because she was "afraid of people getting mad at me for doing this." Tapley said that she would tell the Deputy Sheriff her name, but she didn't want "any public records with her name on it because then people could look it up."
In an interview with Popular Information, Tapley said she was "scrolling through Facebook" this summer and saw "a video of a mom reading a book" that was "really disgusting." She later learned that there was a Moms for Liberty chapter in her area addressing the issue and joined the group. As a member of the group, she learned that local schools had "some really shocking pornographic books in our libraries."
Tapley was accompanied at the Sheriff's Office by Tom Gurski, who is also active in the local Moms for Liberty chapter. Soon, Deputy Sheriff Tyler Mabire and another officer arrived and interviewed the pair.
"The only reason we are here: A crime is being committed. It's a 3rd-degree felony. And we've got the evidence," Gurski said in a body cam video of the interview obtained by Popular Information. "The governor says this is child pornography. It's a serious crime," Tapley added. "It's just as serious as if I handed a playboy to [my child] right now, right here, in front of you. It's just as serious, according to the law." The video has been edited to protect the identity of a minor:
The "pornography" at issue is actually a popular young adult novel, Storm and Fury, by Jennifer L. Armentrout. The book, which is 512 pages, is mostly about humans and gargoyles fighting demons. The main character of the novel, Trinity, is 18 years old. There are some passages with sexual themes, including a few makeout sessions, and one where the main character almost has sex. In the 2020-21 academic year, the Florida Association of Media in Education (FAME), a professional association of Florida librarians, recommended Storm and Fury on its "Teen Reads" list. FAME says books on the list "engage" teens and "provide a spur to critical thinking." Barnes and Noble recommends the book for readers 14 to 18. It was also recommended for students by the School Library Journal.
Armentrout told Popular Information that it was surprising to learn we are "living in an era where, apparently, some adults find it appropriate to contact the police over a fictional book involving gargoyles." She said Storm and Fury "is very close to my heart, as the main character has the same degenerative eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, as I do." Armentrout said she wrote the book "to educate people on a little-known disease in a fun, suspenseful, and adventurous way." The purpose of the book, Armentrout said, was not to "incite sexual excitement."
Tapley told Popular Information that any book that has a "sex scene" is pornography and not "appropriate for minors." She did acknowledge that there may be exceptions for "extreme classics." But the books Moms for Liberty is targeting, Tapley says, are "without significant literary value."
Florida law, however, only bans distributing a book or other material with sexual content if it is "harmful to minors," a standard established by Supreme Court precedent. Under Florida law, a book is only "harmful to minors" if it "[p]redominantly appeals to a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest" and is "patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable material or conduct for minors." Storm and Fury, a book that is predominantly about fighting demons, is routinely recommended by adults for high school students.
Gurski told the officer that Storm and Fury was checked out from Jay High School "by a 17-year-old, which is important because she is a minor." Tapley showed the officers the book, with the offending passages marked with orange sticky notes.
In Santa Rosa County schools, once a book is challenged for sexual content, the policy is to take it out of circulation within five days, pending a review. Tapley alleged, "we have already turned in this book," but the Jay High School librarian did not remove it. That allegation appears to be incorrect. Storm and Fury does not appear on lists of challenged books in Santa Rosa County maintained by the school district and Tapley.
In addition to the librarian at Jay High School, Tapley points the finger at Ruth Witter, the head librarian for the county. Tapley presents the officers with a printout of Witter's Facebook page and claims it is proof that "she [has been a] member of Santa Rosa County Stop Moms for Liberty since May." She explains that "Moms for Liberty is trying to… get rid of these books" and "fights for parents' rights." Meanwhile, Tapley alleges, Stop Moms for Liberty "are the people who are against Moms for Liberty."
Tapley claims that, by following the Santa Rosa County Stop Moms for Liberty group, Witter is "fighting us actively." She also connects this to alleged "death threats" against
Moms for Liberty members, without elaborating. Tapley does not mention that Witter also follows several conservative pages on Facebook, including Fox Nation and a Republican candidate for local office.
The librarian at Milton High School is also singled out by Tapley for posting in a Facebook group called Emerald Coast SWEEP, a local chapter of the group Red, Wine, and Blue. Tapley describes Red, Wine, and Blue as "a very liberal activist group of people fighting for abortion rights" that opposes the removal of books from public school libraries. Tapley says the Milton librarian is seeking "liberals" to join the school's book review committee, which Tapley claims is "illegal."
Asked if she would like to see librarians criminally charged, Tapley told Popular Information that it "depends on if there's an intent." She said her hope was that the Sheriff would tell the librarians, "you can't do this," and "if you continue to do this, then there would be charges." Tapley added that she "didn't really want to see anybody have their life ruined."
In an interview, Tapley downplayed her role at the Sheriff's Office, claiming she was not "seeking out any books and trying to go to the police with it or anything." She described her role "as a helper." She only put her name on the report "so that somebody else could be protected." In an email, Tapley said she "had no interactions with the Sheriff’s Office beyond accompanying a citizen there" and "any reporting that states otherwise would be unfactual."
Popular Information has posted the full video from the Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Office on YouTube.
"To see the orchestrated campaign to remove books from schools escalate to a police station is shocking," Kasey Meehan, a Director at PEN America, a non-profit dedicated to free expression, told Popular Information. "Professional librarians apply sensible measures to curate their collections for diverse audiences of readers, and they should not be punished for making knowledge accessible to students that falls well short of the well-established legal standards for obscene materials." Stephana Ferrell of the Florida Freedom to Read Project described the tactics of Moms for Liberty members in Santa Rosa County as an effort to “bully the district into sacrificing access to protected speech.”
Popular Information contacted Mariya Cakins, the chair of Santa Rosa Moms for Liberty, for comment. Cakins said that she would be happy to speak, but the request needed to be routed through the national Moms for Liberty organization. The group never responded to that request. Popular Information was unable to identify reliable contact information for Gurski.
The efforts of Tapley and Gurski to initiate an investigation by the Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office appear to be unsuccessful. According to a document obtained through a public records request, the Sheriff's Office quickly referred the report to Daniel Hahn, the director of safety at Santa Rosa County Florida School District. The Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office then closed the case.
Gurski, however, is having better luck with other law enforcement agencies.
Florida police department has open criminal investigation of Florida librarians
"Approximately ten days ago, I had a book in my hand that was issued by the Milton school library, which is not your jurisdiction," Gurski told Deputy Mabire at the Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office. "I went to the Milton police station. Submitted an affidavit and the evidence of that particular book. And they have that now for investigation." Gurski said he considered the book pornography.
Tapley says the book reported by Gurski to the Milton police was another young adult novel, Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. The book is a romantic comedy and has some sexual situations and discussions. It also includes LGBTQ characters. It is recommended by Common Sense Media, an independent non-profit that evaluates media for parents, and Publishers Weekly for readers 14 and older.
In response to a public records request, the Milton Police Department said it could not release any information regarding Gurski's complaint about the book because there is an "open and active investigation pending State Attorney review."
The Vicki Baggett connection
Tapley told Popular Information that Vicki Baggett, an English teacher in Escambia County, has been "helping us." Baggett, who Popular Information interviewed earlier this year, has challenged hundreds of books in public school libraries, including many that have LGBTQ characters or address racism. Baggett told Popular Information that she challenged When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball — the inspirational story of a Black woman who overcame racial prejudice to become an Olympic champion — because it would make white students "feel uncomfortable" as "they are being white-shamed.” In a follow-up report, Baggett's current and former students alleged that Baggett openly promoted racist and homophobic beliefs in class. Nevertheless, Baggett has been successful in getting numerous books removed from Escambia public schools. The Escambia school district is now facing a federal lawsuit from a group of authors and First Amendment advocates.
Tapley described Baggett as "a valiant warrior for the kids, an amazing English teacher, and a wonderful Christian woman." According to Tapley, Baggett has come to Santa Rosa County and "has been helping us see what's in our libraries." Many of the challenges in Santa Rosa County are duplicates of those Baggett submitted in Escambia County. "She's been the catalyst really for a lot of this," Tapley said. "She taught me how to do it." Baggett initially submitted the challenges in Santa Rosa County herself, but those were rejected because she is not a resident. Many of those challenges have been resubmitted with Baggett's name alongside a Santa Rosa County resident.