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    Reading Between the Lines: The Chilling Effects of Florida’s New “Book Ban” Bill

    Janella Lopez
    By Janella Lopez   |   Staff Editor

    We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal . . . . A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind.” – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

    The only way to protect our children is by burning the books. School districts across the State of Florida have seen a surge of books pulled from school libraries in the last year. A Polk County school district recently removed sixteen books from its public schools.[i] In Brevard County, an activist group, “Moms 4 Liberty” called for the removal of nineteen books from its school libraries.[ii] In Hillsborough County, Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” has been challenged by parents.[iii] Florida is in the top five states with the most book bans, with about 204 bans, followed by Pennsylvania with 456 bans and Texas with 713 bans.[iv]

    These are just a few examples of efforts by parents to restrict the content and topics that their children are exposed to in schools. Soon, those efforts may be further facilitated with the help of HB 1467, which Florida legislators drafted with the intent to enable parents to exert influence over the materials that children are exposed to in school.[v] However, a closer look at the Bill reveals that it enables just about anyone to exert that influence—not just parents. The Bill provides that “[e]ach district school board must adopt a policy regarding an objection by a parent or a resident of the county to the use a specific material . . . .”[vi] Essentially, the Bill will allow anyone to challenge books and call from their removal from school libraries and curriculums, irrespective of whether the individual challenging the book even has children.

    We have to ask ourselves: where we are going to draw the line between “protecting” children from materials that might be deemed not age-appropriate and material that is challenged because it goes against a personal belief. The latter should not give any individual actual grounds to ask schools to remove a book from its shelves. This is the slippery slope of censorship, and it raises concerns regardless of what side of the aisle you sit on.

    It is overwhelmingly obvious that there are certain books that children should never have access to, books depicting pornographic or obscene content are incredibly harmful for children and should not be permitted in schools under any circumstances. However, a majority of the books that are being challenged and removed from schools recently paint a different picture of what is truly being targeted. Banning books because they go against an individual’s personal beliefs, or because they otherwise do not like the content or message of the book, goes against the U.S. Supreme Court’s plurality opinion in Island Trees District v. Pico, where the Court provided clarity on the legal standard for banning books in school.[vii] In Pico, Justice Blackmun concludes that “school officials may not remove books from school libraries for the purpose of restricting access to the political ideas or social perspectives discussed in the books, when that action is motivated simply by the officials’ disapproval of the ideas involved.”[viii]

    Those that fear the impact that the Book Ban Bill cite to the sorts of books that have been removed from shelves just within the last year alone. A recent article by Pen America, a nonprofit that is centered around the protection and advancement of free speech in literature, explains how books are being improperly targeted “on the basis of content pertaining to race, gender, or sexual orientation . . . .”[ix] It is therefore easy to anticipate, for example, that the Book Ban Bill might be used as a vehicle by anti-LGBTQ groups to manipulate, or completely eliminate, the type of literature available in schools on LGBTQ topics. This would just be the start. The potential pitfalls of censorship lies in drawing the line between acceptable and nonacceptable materials, much of which is subjective and leaves the door open to First and Fourteenth Amendment challenges.

    [i] See Aaron Mesmer, Polk County School Leaders Consider Banning 16 Books Due to ‘Potentially Inappropriate’ Content, Fox 13 News (Feb. 10, 2022) https://www.fox13news.com/news/polk-county-school-leaders-consider-banning-16-books-due-to-potentially-inappropriate-content.

    [ii] See Holly Bristow, Moms 4 Liberty Brevard Asking for 19 More Book To Be Pulled From School Libraries, Fox 35 Orlando (March 23, 2022) https://www.fox35orlando.com/news/moms-4-liberty-brevard-asking-for-19-more-books-to-be-pulled-from-school-libraries.

    [iii] See Danielle J. Brown, Amid Fear and Censorship, FL School Districts are Pulling Books off Shelves in Public Schools, Florida Phoenix (Feb. 15, 2022) https://floridaphoenix.com/2022/02/15/amid-fear-and-censorship-fl-school-districts-are-pulling-books-off-shelves-in-public-schools/#:~:text=In%20Flagler%20County%2C%20in%20Northeast,inappropriate%20for%20school%2Daged%20kids.

    [iv] See Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights, Pen America, https://pen.org/banned-in-the-usa/ (last visited April 8, 2022).

    [v] See H.B. 1467  (2022);see also Governor Ron DeSantis Signs Bill that Requires Curriculum Transparency, FL Gov (March 25, 2022) https://www.flgov.com/2022/03/25/governor-ron-desantis-signs-bill-that-requires-curriculum-transparency/.

    [vi] H.B. 1467  (2022) (emphasis added).

    [vii] See Bd. of Educ., Island Trees Union Free Sch. Dist. No. 26 v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982).

    [viii] Id. at 854.

    [ix] See Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights, Pen America, https://pen.org/banned-in-the-usa/ (last visited April 8, 2022).

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