Hannah Hipolito, Eliza Lane, and Andrew Larsen advocated for instructors at Palm Harbor University High School to reverse a ban on “The Bluest Eye.” (Credit: Mitch Perry)
Allowing kids to have access to books and information is worth fighting for.
That was the theme of a public teach-in on the removal of books in public schools in Florida held Wednesday night in Clearwater by the Florida Freedom to Read Project, PEN America, the League of Women Voters of North Pinellas County, and other state and local groups.
School districts across Florida have been pulling books off shelves or limiting their availability, in part due to legislation pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and passed by the Republican-led Legislature.
That includes a 2022 bill requiring any library or instructional books to be reviewed by a district employee with a valid educational media specialist certificate to ensure that they don’t contain pornographic content.
There is also 2022’s Stop WOKE Act, which mandates that any discussion of topics such as sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination be done in an “age-appropriate manner and in such a way that does not indoctrinate or persuade students to a certain point of view that is inconsistent with the principals of individual freedom.”
A new bill (HB 1069) signed into law last month includes a requirement that any books objected to as pornographic or containing “sexual content” be removed within five days of an objection and remain unavailable to students until the objection is resolved.
“In Florida alone, we’ve had over 2,000 challenges just in the last school year-and-a-half on 1,100 unique titles, so this is like nothing that I’ve ever seen,” said Raegan Miller, director of development for the Florida Freedom to Read Project, founded by two Orange County parents in late 2021.
“And even if they’re not being challenged, teachers are very worried about what they’re teaching and they’re definitely looking for their books and putting things aside because they’re afraid of that one parent who’s going to challenge what might be in a book,” Miller said.
In Florida, one single parent can restrict who can read certain material. That’s what’s happened in Miami-Dade County, where one complaint was enough to compel a committee inside the Miami-Dade County School District to remove Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” poem from elementary school shelves.
The parent complained that the poem referenced critical race theory, “indirect hate messages,” gender ideology, and indoctrination, according to the Miami Herald. The poem, recited by Gorman during Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration, remains available for students in grades 6-8.
“The process worked,” Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz told WLRN radio about how the poem was reviewed, adding that “no books were banned.”
The governor has consistently denied that Florida is banning any books, calling such claims “a hoax.”
According to PEN America, 357 books were banned in Florida between July and December 2022, and 175 have been removed from bookshelves in school districts this year. The governor’s office says that of those 175 books, 164 were removed from media centers and 153 were identified as pornographic, violent, or inappropriate for their grade level.
It’s part of a growing national trend.
In a report issued in April, the American Library Association (ALA) said that its Office for Intellectual Freedom received 1,269 book challenges in 2022, the highest number since the ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries. The ALA says that the majority of those banned were written by or about members of the LGBTQ+ community or Black people, Indigenous people, or people of color.
On the same day last month that DeSantis signed a slate of education-related bills, PEN America and other groups filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging book bans in the Escambia County School District in the Panhandle. The lawsuit focuses on the district’s decisions to remove and restrict books from public school libraries, the Phoenix reported.
“Of the 197 books that have been targeted for removal, approximately 40% have authors who are non-white and/or identify as LGBTQ, while approximately 60% address themes relating to race or LGBTQ identity,” the lawsuit states. “Of the 154 books that have either been removed or restricted, approximately 37% have authors who are non-white and/or identify as LGBTQ, while approximately 60% address themes relating to race or LGBTQ identity, or feature prominent non-white and/or LGBTQ characters.”
In March in Tampa, Gov. DeSantis hosted a press conference headlined “Exposing the Book Ban Hoax,” which began with a six-minute video featuring controversial books such as “Gender Queer” and “Flamer” that have been removed from Florida schools. The audience was cautioned by a DeSantis staff member that the video would include sexually explicit material, and DeSantis has frequently referred to how a local TV station in Tampa had to cut its live internet feed of that press conference.
‘The Bluest Eye’
Pinellas County School Board member Eileen Long said the process in her district in the past has been that if a parent objects to a particular book, the teacher will offer an alternative assignment. But in January, officials there removed Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” from all classrooms and libraries following a complaint by a parent at Palm Harbor University High about a rape scene depicted in the 1970 novel.
However, in April, a committee of district media specialists reversed course and said that the book would be available in media centers for high school students.
That change happened after a group of juniors and seniors in the Palm Harbor University High School international baccalaureate program organized a protest to restore “The Bluest Eye” to libraries. Those students are happy that the book is now available again for high school students but regret that younger readers won’t have access to it.
“It was a real wonderful experience,” said Andrew Larsen, who just graduated from that high School. “The book helped me grow, not only as a person by talking about complex issues that exist in the real world, but it helped me grow as a literary student.”
“It taught me a lot about race and beauty standards and identity,” added Hannah Hipolito, another recent University High graduate. “Those were the main issues that I found myself focusing on, and I felt myself relating to the character as a person of color growing up in the United States, so I think it’s really a shame that younger students are being deprived of the opportunity to learn about these things and hear that perspective that a lot of them may not have already been exposed growing up here.”
The featured speaker during Wednesday night’s event was Ryan Estrada, who, along with his wife Kim Hyun Sook, co-wrote the graphic 2020 novel “Banned Book Club.” The book revolves around a South Korea woman’s student years in the 1980s living under an authoritarian regime and defying state censorship by reading. A Michigan native, Estrada now lives in Busan, South Korea. He felt compelled to fight censorship in Florida schools after the “Banned Book Club” was temporarily removed from Clay County school libraries earlier this year.
“After our book was banned, I got in touch with people here and said, ‘I will fly from South Korea. I will fly 8,000 miles to go to the school board,’” Estrada told the Phoenix.
Although his book has been restored to school bookshelves in Clay County, Estrada was still eager to participate in Wednesday’s event in Clearwater. “We interviewed so many people who risked their lives and went to prison fighting for this very issue [in South Korea],” he said. “I thought it would be nice to bring some historical perspective and see what I could do to help.”
Lindsey Cross, who represents parts of Pinellas County in Florida’s House District 60, said she’s concerned the situation is scaring teachers and support staff away from sharing “age-appropriate material” with students that could help them become better citizens and better prepared for higher education or the workforce.
“I really worry that our students are going to get a lower-rate education because of it, and we already hear about professors and people in our higher education systems who are proactively leaving the state because of things like SB 266 or HB 999 that’s limiting diversity, equity, and inclusion and impacting the way programs are accredited. And so, it starts in our K-12 systems and now we’re seeing it taking a step further in our higher education.”
(Senate bill 266 and its House equivalent, HB 999, will prohibit Florida colleges and universities from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion programs. The measure prohibits schools from spending money on programs or activities that “promote or engage in political or social activism” as defined by the State Board of Education or a university’s board of governors. The law also places new requirements on general-education core courses at state colleges and universities).
That self-censorship is real, said Eliza Lane, a junior at Palm Harbor University High School.
“All of these media specialists, these teachers, are afraid of their jobs and their safety because, the way this legislation is written, those people can be held accountable for apparent objection for material that is supposedly not supposed to be in school, but the requirements, the legislation is so vague that … it’s casting a giant net over a very miniscule area,” Lune said.
Tasslyn Magnuson, a program consultant with Freedom to Read at PEN America, argued that “anytime a kid loses its access” to a book, it’s a problem.
“It’s important for kids to have access to that,” Magnuson said. “We can call it a ‘hoax.’ It’s not a hoax. It’s reducing access.”
Meanwhile, actual and attempted removal of titles in Florida schools shows no signs of abating.
A committee of faculty members and residents in Flagler County voted unanimously last week to keep Becky Albertalli’s “The Upside of Unrequited” in high school libraries, Flaglerlive.com reported. The paper reported that “[t]he committee had trouble matching listed objections with actual passages of explicit content or depictions glorifying drinking or drugs, strongly suggesting of those filing the challenges had not read the book.”
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