Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) and the Florida Department of Education have imposed sweeping new restrictions on books in public schools, both in libraries and in classrooms. The new rules, which come with threats of felony prosecution, have created chaos, forcing some teachers to pack up their classroom libraries or cover their shelves with construction paper. In the meantime, there is a lot of uncertainty about how this will play out. What books will ultimately be allowed? And which books will be banished from Florida schools?
Duval County Public Schools, which includes Jacksonville and the surrounding area, has enthusiastically embraced the task of complying with DeSantis' new mandates. Unlike many counties, Duval County schools initiated a review of books in Duval County schools months ago. So what's happening in Duval County may be an early indicator of what is coming for the rest of the state.
Popular Information obtained details of the Duval County book reviews from the Florida Freedom To Read Project, which acquired the documents through public records requests. Many of the reviews involved books that were part of the Essential Voices Classroom Libraries Collection, a collection purchased by the district for use in classroom libraries in 2021.
One book reviewed in Duval County and banned from school libraries was The Best Man, a book "about a boy's journey into the middle school years and the male role models in his life." The reviewer was Michelle DiBias, the Supervisor of Instructional Materials and Media Services for Duval County Public Schools. In that role, DiBias supervises all librarians in the school district — that is, the people who will make decisions on every book.
DiBias objects to the fact that in The Best Man "2 men marry and the young man is made the ring bearer." DiBias says, while that wedding is celebrated, other weddings "are looked down on by the narrator in the tone and expression."
DiBias concludes that the book should be rejected because it violates Florida's pornography statutes. She writes that the book "is portraying sexual excitement and is damaging to students." That means DiBias believes that, based on the book's content, a teacher or librarian that made The Best Man available to students could be charged with a third-degree felony. She finds that the book "is not appropriate for any group of students" and must be removed "from all schools."
The review conducted by DiBias is completely inconsistent with other reviews of the book. Common Sense Media, an independent non-profit that evaluates books and other entertainment for parents and schools, gives The Best Man its lowest rating for "Sex, Romance, & Nudity," meaning that reviewers found nothing objectionable:
Some talk among the kids about dating, but nothing serious or sexually charged. A gay relationship between two adults figures into the plot. Archer makes a few references to his pregnant teacher and her sonograms. Archer's mom jokes with him about finding him in a cabbage patch, but they skirt the talk of where babies really come from.
Overall, Common Sense Media found that Best Man stood out for "positive messages" and "positive role models." Moreover, the "content is tame overall."
The Duval County review of Best Man undercuts the argument of Manny Diaz Jr., Florida's Education Commissioner, who argued that teachers could avoid felony prosecution — or any other adverse consequences — by exercising "common sense." Meanwhile, DeSantis and his political allies are redefining innocuous children's books that have LGBTQ characters as pornography.
Expanding the STOP Woke Act and "Don't Say Gay" to library books
In a January 23 posting, Duval County announced that it is applying the STOP Woke Act to its review of books in classrooms and libraries. The law prohibits, among other things, instruction that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin is inherently racist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
The text of the STOP Woke Act is clear that the restrictions apply to instruction not library books. Duval County Public Schools declined to be interviewed, but did answer emailed questions. Asked why the county was applying the STOP Woke Act to library books, a Duval County official pointed to "state training transcript slides 32 and 33," referring to a training provided to librarians by the Florida Department of Education in January. But that section of the transcript refers to instructional materials not library books.
Asked to explain this discrepancy, the Duval County official said the school district considered all library books "instructional material." The state training, however, explicitly distinguishes between library books and instructional materials.
Books that have been rejected by Duval County, according to public records, include Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation, a book about a family that fought segregation in California schools, and My Name is Sally Little Song, a book about an enslaved family in Georgia.
Duval County schools are also reviewing all books for compliance with the Parental Rights in Education Act, also known as "Don't Say Gay." The school district claims it is required to do so by the "[s]tate training," but there is no such requirement. The law itself is limited to "sexual instruction" directed at K-3 students and age-inappropriate instruction for older students.
The DeSantis administration, in a federal court case seeking to invalidate the law, argues the law does not apply to library books. The plaintiffs in the case cite the 1982 Supreme Court case of Board of Education v. Pico. In Pico, the court ruled that the First Amendment protects students’ “right to receive information and ideas.” The plaintiffs state that the new law violates the standard established in Pico because the restrictions are not “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."
In a motion to dismiss the case, lawyers representing DeSantis and the State of Florida argue that Pico does not apply. DeSantis' lawyers state that Pico applies to the availability of library books while the Parental Rights in Education Act applies only to classroom instruction.
Books that have been rejected by Duval County schools, according to public records, include Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, Stonewall, 10,000 Dresses, and The Flag of Childhood.
I feel for the people who voted against Ron DeSantis but are forced to put up with these shenanigans. He's truly repugnant.
Have they reviewed the Bible yet?