Florida expansion of ‘Don’t Say Gay’ could release flood of book bans

Daily News Stories,

Florida is looking to expand its Parental Rights in Education law passed last year in a way that could lead to a flood of challenged books being removed from classrooms.

The state has already faced allegations of censorship for stringent restrictions in the existing law, known to its critics as “Don’t Say Gay,” on talk of sexual orientation and gender identity in public school classrooms.

A legislative proposal filed this year by the Florida GOP would expand the existing law’s age restrictions and extend the ability to challenge learning materials in Florida schools to all individuals, regardless of whether they have children in the public school system.

Opponents of the bill have voiced concerns that the 20-page measure’s at-times broad language may allow even persons outside of Florida to challenge books in state schools.

The law would allow people to challenge any book that “depicts or describes sexual conduct” and require school districts to approve requests made by parents to read passages from challenged materials in their children’s schools. If a request is denied, the school district must immediately “discontinue the use of the material,” according to the bill.

Parents under the proposed law would also be entitled to request that the state Education Commissioner appoint a special magistrate to step in if the parent disagrees with the school board’s determination on a book challenge.

The Florida House voted to pass the measure late last month, sending it to the Republican-controlled Senate for consideration, where it is also expected to pass.

According to the measure, once a title is challenged, it must be pulled from school library shelves within five school days and “remain unavailable to students until the objection is resolved” — a process that can take months.

Similar reviews mandated by the existing law, which only applies to Florida parents, are already taking several weeks to complete, said Brandon Wolf, the press secretary for the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida.

A tidal wave of book challenges is likely to crash over Florida schools if the legislature’s proposal passes into law, Wolf said, overwhelming school officials and creating a backlog of complaints lodged against library books that could strip shelves bare for months at a time.

Florida Republicans have argued that books will not be banned, only temporarily pulled from circulation.

“This idea that book banning is taking place, and all of that, is a myth and is not true,” state Rep. Stan McClain (R), one the measure’s primary sponsors, said during a House committee hearing last month.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who is expected to sign the measure, and his administration have also rejected reports of empty libraries in Florida, dismissing them as a hoax and an attempt by Democrats to use Florida schools “for indoctrination.”

But although the measure does not ban books outright, it “effectively creates a process where that’s what happens,” said Kirk Bailey, the political director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Florida affiliate.

The expansion’s impacts are likely to reverberate for years to come, and the “bigger picture” is the chilling effect it is likely to have on school librarians and media specialists responsible for purchasing books, Kasey Meehan, the director of the free speech group PEN America’s Freedom to Read Project, told The Hill.

“There’s lots of layers to this,” Meehan said.

The proposal has also drawn some criticism from Republicans, who say its passage could lead to a back-and-forth where both sides of the political spectrum go after books as a power play to rile up the other side.

Earlier this month, Florida Democrats tried to use the review-and-removal process against DeSantis’s own recent memoir, “The Courage to Be Free.”

“This is the foreseeable thing,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Washington. “People will challenge any book they don’t like or it will become tit-for-tat.”

But Pondiscio said he still believes community stakeholders should be allowed to challenge school library books, even if they are not parents or don’t children in Florida schools.

“I’m thinking about whenever folks in education accuse folks in public office, you know, saying they should stay in their lane. Well, this is their lane,” he said. “This is a legitimate use of public authority. Now, whether it’s a judicious use of public authority is the question.”

The Florida Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom and executive director of Freedom to Read Foundation, said the new law is unnecessary because most schools already have policies in place that allow individuals to raise concerns about the content of library books.

“This process has worked very well to explain why a book is on the shelf, to discuss why that book is available for readers in the library and to help librarians understand what books are desired by the individual raising the objection so they can guide that particular student’s reading in accordance with the family’s values,” she said.

But while groups like the ALA support a parent’s involvement in their children’s education, “We truly do object to rules, regulations, laws that enable vocal minority or a single and even a single individual in the community to limit what’s available for young people to read in the school library,” Caldwell-Stone said.

LGBTQ organizations have also raised concerns that book challenges will disproportionately affect LGBTQ youth and families.

“More LGBTQ youth are out than ever before, and banning books won’t change that, but it sends a dangerous message about who belongs and is welcome,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and chief executive of GLAAD.

“We all should be able to see ourselves on the shelves,” Ellis said. “Each book opens a world of ideas and a galaxy of possibility, especially to young people whose own lawmakers refuse to protect them and try to limit who they can be.”