The tide turns on Florida book bans
For years, Florida has been at the vanguard of removing books from school libraries. Florida Republicans, including Governor Ron DeSantis (R), insisted that school librarians were seeking to "groom" children with pornographic materials. Florida's Republican legislature passed — and Ron DeSantis signed — several pieces of legislation that made it easier to take books off the shelves of the state's public schools. This was all seen as smart politics, appealing to parents seeking to protect their children from inappropriate content.
But now, things in Florida are changing. Republicans in the Florida House have proposed legislation that would make it more difficult for people to challenge books en mass. The legislation, which has already cleared two committees with Republican support, is an implicit acknowledgment that book banning in Florida schools has gone too far. It also suggests that the enormous number of books being taken off the shelves of Florida schools has become a political problem for Florida Republicans.
The majority of book challenges in the United States came from 11 people. Two of the most prolific, Bruce Friedman and Vicki Baggett, hail from Florida. Friedman and Baggett have each challenged hundreds of books in Clay and Escambia County, respectively. (Baggett has challenged more books in Santa Rosa County.) Over half of all book objections in Florida during the 2022-3 school year came from Clay and Escambia County.
Friedman and Baggett frequently challenge books that include LGBTQ characters or discuss the existence of racism, whether or not the books include any sexual content. Baggett previously told Popular Information that she challenged And Tango Makes Three — a book about two male penguins who raise a baby chick in the Central Park Zoo — because she was concerned "a second grader would read this book, and that idea would pop into the second grader's mind… that these are two people of the same sex that love each other."
Friedman previously told Popular Information that he challenged The Girl from the Sea — an award-winning graphic novel about a 15-year-old girl who develops romantic feelings for another girl — because students are "not in school to learn how to be better lesbians."
This month, Florida Representative Dana Trabulsy (R), the chair of the House Education Quality Subcommittee, introduced legislation (HB 7025) that "authorizes school districts to assess a processing fee of $100 for each objection to a material by a resident or parent whose student is not enrolled in the school where the material is located." The new fee would apply "to each objection after the first 5." (The bill also makes changes on a variety of other educational matters.)
Baggett has challenged 193 books in Escambia County. Had Trabulsy's legislation been in place, Baggett would have been required to pay $18,800 to submit her challenges.
"I’m happy that we are digging in and trying to remove reading material that is inappropriate for our children," Trabulsy told Politico. "But I think [book challengers] really need to be respectful of the amount of books that they are pouring into schools at one time."
Friedman did not respond to a request for comment about the new legislation. He told Action News Jax that "[t]he fees bill will not pass into law" because it would be "political suicide for a conservative." Even if the bill did pass, Friedman said, "it will fail to stop my efforts." Baggett did not respond to a request for comment.
The House Education Quality Subcommittee is comprised of 14 Republicans and 4 Democrats. The committee voted to approve Trabulsky's bill on a vote of 17 to 1. The bill also cleared the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee, another body dominated by Republicans, on a vote of 16-0. The bill still has a number of hurdles to clear and similar legislative language has not been proposed in the Florida Senate. But it does appear to have the support of Florida House Speaker Paul Renner (R). A spokesman for Renner said he hoped the bill would "weed out the possibility of abuse in the process, encouraging only legitimate claims to be brought forward for review."
Many of the Florida Republicans now voting to limit book bans have close ties to DeSantis. It appears they no longer believe championing the removal of school library books is a political winner.
A political fix
While the bill represents a shift in the politics of book bans in Florida, it will not solve the issues with Florida's school libraries.
Last year, DeSantis signed into law legislation (HB 1069) that gives residents the right to demand the removal of any library book that "depicts or describes sexual conduct," as defined under Florida law, whether or not the book is pornographic. This means that many books with unassailable literary and educational value could be successfully challenged under Florida law. Under the proposed legislation, book challengers might have to pay $100, but the current standard is so broad that many of the challenges could be successful.
Further, a lot of the books being removed from Florida school libraries are not the result of a formal challenge. In Escambia County, for example, Baggett helped convince the school board to order a review of all books in school and classroom libraries for compliance with HB 1069. That process resulted in the removal of 2800 books from the shelves, including three dictionaries, eight different encyclopedias, two thesauruses, and five editions of The Guinness Book of World Records. Also removed were classic texts like Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures and the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. The school district is in the process of performing a second review of all 2800 books to determine whether the removals would be permanent.
The dragnet in Escambia County has even snared two books by right-wing pundit Bill O'Reilly. He is not happy about it and declared that "things are getting crazy with book banning in Florida." O'Reilly told Newsweek that Florida's approach is "absurd" and "preposterous." According to O'Reilly, "the wording of the law was far too nebulous in Tallahassee" and "DeSantis needs to come out publicly and say 'this is insane, we're not going to cooperate with this and we're going to investigate the people who did it.'"
Real change in Florida's school libraries would require repealing HB 1069 and putting into place safeguards to prevent abuse. In Colorado, for example, new legislation would "require all materials to remain on shelves and accessible during a challenge" and mandate that "decisions made to the acquisition or removal of materials or displays cannot be discriminatory."