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Florida under DeSantis: Nation’s worst book-banning offender?

By Paul Blythe

Book banning in schools was more widespread in Florida than any other state in the nation in the first semester of the 2022-2023 school year, a new PEN America study shows.

Between July and December 2022, PEN America recorded 13 school districts in Florida banning books, the most of any state. And our so-called Sunshine State removed the second most books – 357 titles – of any state from its schools during that period, the study said.

Overall, the study found instances of books being banned in 66 school districts in 21 states between July and December 2022.

Florida, with 13 book-banning school districts, including Palm Beach County, was followed by Missouri with 12 districts, Texas with seven, and South Carolina and Michigan, each with five. Besides Palm Beach County, the Florida districts where books were banned in the first semester of this school year were Brevard, Broward, Clay, Escambia, Flagler, Hernando, Highlands, Lake, Manatee, Seminole, St. Lucie and Volusia counties.

Texas school districts banned the most individual books during that time, with 438 titles banned, followed by the 357 in Florida, 315 in Missouri, and over 100 in both Utah and South Carolina.

PEN America's series of reports

This data was published April 20, 2023 as “Banned in the USA: State Laws Supercharge Book Suppression in Schools,” the third and latest installment of PEN America’s tally of books that have been banned from U.S. school libraries, classrooms and curriculums.

PEN America – a non-profit literary organization that advocates for writers, literacy and free expression – started the study in 2021.

In the first installment, Banned in the USA (April 2022), it reported that book bans had occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states in the first nine months of the 2021-22 school year. For the period between July 2021 and March 2022, it found 1,586 cases of individual books being banned, including 1,145 unique book titles by 688 authors, 155 illustrators and 11 translators. Florida’s 204 bans in seven districts placed third in the nation for that period, behind Texas with 713 bans in 16 districts and Pennsylvania with 456 bans in nine districts.

With additional reporting on the entire 12-month 2021-2022 school year, PEN America counted bans in 138 school districts in 32 states for the period of July 2021 to June 2022. That second report, Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools, listed bans of 2,532 individual books, including 1,648 unique book titles, affecting 1,261 authors, 290 illustrators and 18 translators. Florida’s 566 bans in 21 districts placed it second among states after Texas’ 801 bans in 22 districts.

Censorship an organized effort . . .

And growing

PEN America's research makes it clear these are not just isolated, grassroots challenges to books by parents in different communities. Rather, they are part of an organized, national effort by conservative advocacy groups and state politicians. And the process behind book challenges and bans is growing and evolving.

According to PEN America's most recent report: “During the 2021-22 school year, parent-led groups coordinated to advance book censorship. These groups pressured districts to remove books without following their own policies, even in some cases, removing books without reading them. That trend has continued in the 2022-23 school year, but it has also been supercharged by a new source of pressure: state legislation.”

The states where bans were most prevalent in the first half of this school year -- Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina -- included those that had recently passed new laws dictating the types of books that can even be in schools and the types of policies districts must follow to review their collections. The implications of bans in these states are far-reaching, as their policies and practices are being modeled and replicated across the country, the report said.

For the July-December 2022 period, PEN America found 1,477 instances of individual books banned, including 874 unique titles affecting 688 authors, 155 illustrators, and 11 translators. This represents an increase from the prior six months, January to June 2022, when 1,149 instances of book banning were recorded.

Over 4,000 instances of banned books have been recorded since PEN America started tracking book bans in July 2021, affecting 2,253 unique titles. Overall, the bans affect 182 school districts in 37 states and millions of students.

Of the 1,477 books banned between July and December 2022, 1,085 books, or 74%, were connected to organized efforts – either of advocacy groups, elected officials, enacted legislation or some combination of the three.

Of those 1,085 organized efforts, 294, or 20 percent, were connected to advocacy groups. Moms for Liberty was the most influential of these advocacy groups, as it organized 170 book bans in North Dakota, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Florida. These accounted for 58 percent of all advocacy-led book bans in the country.

Meanwhile, 372, or 25 percent, of the individual books banned nationwide during this period were connected to political pressure from elected or appointed officials.

And newly enacted laws in Florida, Utah and Missouri accounted for 461 of the books banned during this period, or 31 percent. These states' new laws contain direct prohibitions on certain content in schools, specify new rules about how books need to be cataloged or new conditions under which they can be accessed, or threaten punishments for teachers, librarians and administrators if they provide students access to material deemed “harmful” or “explicit.” Florida passed laws doing each of the three.

Chilling effect of vague legislation

PEN America says such laws give administrators and other decision-makers incentives to take an overly censorious approach to the content, images and ideas available in classrooms and libraries. Vague language in the laws regarding how they should be implemented, as well as the inclusion of potential punishments for educators who violate them, have combined to yield a chilling effect, according to the group's most recent report.

We saw this in Florida after the implementation of three laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022: HB 1557, which bars instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade; HB 7, which prohibits educators from discussing advantages or disadvantages based on race; and HB 1467, which requires that schools must catalog every book on their shelves, including those found in classroom libraries.

Due to the lack of clear guidance in the laws or from the state Department of Education, teachers, media specialists and school administrators proactively removed books from shelves, even though no specific challenges had been filed against the books, according to the most recent PEN America report, which cited the online newsletter, Popular Information. This was exacerbated in October 2022, when the Florida Board of Education implemented new rules that went beyond the language in the laws, to stipulate that teachers found in violation of these bills could have their professional teaching certification revoked, PEN America reported in 2022.

PEN America found that of the 1,477 ban cases between July and December 2022, 761 books, or 52%, were banned pending investigation, 25% (364 books) were banned in libraries and classrooms, 23% (345 books) were banned in libraries but not from classroom curricula, and less than half a percent (7 books) were banned only from use in classrooms.

The organization included "books banned pending investigation" as a ban because such removals are counter to the procedural best practices recommended by the American Library Association and the National Coalition Against Censorship. Not only are books often removed from student access before due process of any kind is carried out, they are removed even before objections to them are checked for basic accuracy.

Pen America says such investigations, which can drag on for months at a time, are happening more frequently as districts receive numerous book challenges and remove large lists of books from student access for indefinite periods of review because teachers, librarians and media specialists are intimidated by potential penalties included in new, untested laws and board of education regulations.

For example, in Clay County, Florida, at least 100 books were pulled from access in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year, after challenges from one man, the president and founder of the Florida chapter of No Left Turn in Education, a right-wing educational group.

In cases where investigations have concluded and particular titles have been further restricted or banned as a result, PEN America catalogs the ban under one of the other three categories.

Other key findings

PEN America's most recent study also found that of the 874 unique book titles banned between July and December 2022:

  • 385 books, or 44%, include themes or instances of violence and physical abuse. This includes titles that have episodes of violence or physical abuse as a component of plot or discussion.

  • 331, or 38%, cover topics on health and well-being for students, including content on mental health, bullying, suicide, substance abuse, sexual well-being or puberty.

  • 264, or 30%, are books that include themes of grief and death or have a character death that is impactful to the plot or a character’s emotional arc.

  • 260, or 30%, are books about race, racism, or feature characters of color.

  • 229, or 26%, present LGBTQ+ characters or themes. Of note, within this category, 68 are books that include transgender characters, which is 8% of all books banned.

  • 211, or 24%, detail sexual experiences between characters.

  • 150, or 17%, mention teen pregnancy, abortion, or sexual assault.

PEN America also notes that books are more frequently being labeled “pornographic” or “indecent.” Dozens of books were targeted for removal in the 2021-22 school year on the basis that they contained sexual content. But since last summer, this framing has become an increasing focus of activists and politicians to justify removing books.

For example, a March 8, 2023 release from DeSantis’ office defending the education laws and rules passed during his administration, quotes him as saying, “In Florida, pornographic and inappropriate materials that have been snuck into our classrooms and libraries to sexualize our students violate our state education standards. Florida is the education state and that means providing students with a quality education free from sexualization and harmful materials that are not age appropriate.”

However, such framing usually does not meet well-established legal or even colloquial definitions of “pornography” and “obscenity.”

As we explained in a previous story about book banning in Florida, the legal test for obscenity requires a holistic evaluation of the material.

Over the last year, however, terminology such as “obscene,” “pornographic,” “harmful to minors,” and “sexually explicit” is being utilized in Florida’s and other states’ laws to restrict a range of content, including books on LGBTQ+ experiences, stories that include any sexual references and even sex education materials, PEN America's most recent report says. Books also are frequently targeted for short excerpts or even single images, without the holistic evaluation of entire texts that are necessary to understand their literary merits.

And while DeSantis and his administration have defended Florida's Parental Rights in Education Act, as being based on age-appropriate education, the State Board of Education voted on April 19, 2023, to expand the law to all grades by prohibiting classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation through 12th grade.

In defense of freedom to read

Steps like that affirm PEN America’s contention that its data on book bans between July and December 2022 demonstrate how the movement to remove books from public schools is continuing to gain steam.

And it says its preliminary tracking of the second half of the 2022-2023 school year suggests censorship efforts are still ramping up. Besides impeding students’ freedom to read and limiting students’ access to a diversity of views, this censorship movement places an increasing burden and cost on public schools, the organization says.

PEN America urges that for the 2023-2024 school year, school boards and district administrators should consider the many reasons for including and celebrating books rather than restricting them.

It also notes that a good resource in Florida for defending the freedom to read is the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which gives the even better recommendation of using Republicans' own Parental Rights law (HB 1557) to fight their book-banning movement. Florida Freedom to Read says, “Let’s flood” the email address that the Florida Department of Education created for reporting violations of parental rights with our own stories of how these new restrictions are unfair to our children, teachers and schools. Click here to assert your parental rights now.



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