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The pervasive threat of letting kids read the ‘wrong’ book

The school district in Indian River County, Fla., removed Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” from the school.
The school district in Indian River County, Fla., removed the John Steinbeck classic “Of Mice and Men” from the school.

Florida hasn’t made reading a crime — not yet, anyway. But it’s doing the next worse thing by dangling threats of criminal charges against teachers and educators who share the “wrong” books with students.

What’s the wrong book? Only state-trained, certified media specialists can make the call. That’s the upshot of Tallahassee’s rush to clamp down on words, thoughts and images in classrooms.

Giving students obscene books has long been a third-degree felony. But in recent weeks, the Florida Department of Education red-flagged the risk as it implements a new law (HB 1467) signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The state unveiled book-vetting training emphasizing that making a wrong call on a book could net an educator five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The state Board of Education discussed the training, and the implied threat, in a meeting on Jan. 18 where representatives of groups including Moms for Liberty and County Citizens Defending Freedom argued that the possibility of arrest should be made more prominent, warned that educators and teachers might sneak books into classrooms and suggested that the criteria for criminal obscenity needed to be broader, the better to remove or restrict more books.

Emptied shelves

In case school districts didn’t get the message, the state warned that when deciding which books could stay and which had to go, it would be best to “err on the side of caution,” which could have a chilling effect.

Faced with vetting thousands of books and the risk of a felony, Manatee and Duval county school districts all but panicked. In classroom after classroom last month, teachers swept up some books and shrouded others from view. Manatee backtracked in the wake of an uproar that went national, saying no wholesale vetting was needed after all. By then, teachers had tweeted out photos of bare classroom library shelves.

Those emptied shelves shout the quiet part out loud. Fear is not an unhappy side effect of enacting Florida’s laws curbing school books and classroom discussion. It’s a central feature.

Education Commissioner Manny Diaz told the National Review the two counties overreacted. He dismissed the Twitter photos as a stunt. Diaz has not been paying close enough attention. PEN America’s list of more than 400 Florida school book titles banned or under scrutiny clearly shows that no book is too benign to skate through vetting.

Take, for example, “Everywhere Babies ,” a celebrated cardboard picture book. The book plot: Color drawings of babies. Everywhere.

According to PEN, Lee, Walton and St. Lucie school districts temporarily pulled the baby book last year until it could be fully investigated for harmful content. Among its challenged literary crimes: In a drawing crowded with babies and parents, two men are shown walking side by side, and one has his arm around the other.

Similarly, no book is too celebrated to be jettisoned. PEN America, a reading advocacy group, reported that Indian River’s school district removed the Steinbeck classic “Of Mice and Men” and, perhaps predictably, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” The sex described in another challenged volume, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” could be disturbing, but not as much as the novel’s premise: a world in which forced, unquestioned uniformity begins in childhood.

A moving target

The number of Florida books on the PEN America list is a moving target, as some books are added and others are returned to libraries after passing muster. However, no one should be comforted by the fact that some removed books will eventually make it back to students.

Eventually could be a very long time.

Because vetting must include books in classrooms designed to encourage reading, not just library books, the number of books that must be examined has expanded greatly. There aren’t yet enough trained media specialists to rapidly approve books in all schools. Specialist training only started in January.

Duval County’s experience is instructional. The school district bought, then preemptively warehoused, more than 170 books in early 2022 before the books could get into schools. Titles such as “Dim Sum for Everyone!” gathered dust for 10 months before being set free.

And while no one has gone to jail over school books, it hasn’t been for lack of trying.

Four Moms for Liberty members tried to press criminal charges in Indian River County last March, claiming school distribution of pornographic materials. They submitted three books as examples of “grotesque” sexual material, including “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” a young adult novel made into a PG-13 movie; and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” an adult novel also made into a PG-13 movie.

The small amount of sexual material in each book — no more than 5% of any of the three novels’ hundreds of pages — didn’t violate state law, a county sheriff’s investigation found. Further, sexual content alone does not automatically qualify as pornography if the book has significant literary value.

There’s a fix for that, book-banning activists told the Florida Board of Education in its Jan. 18: Get legislators to close the literary value loophole. Redefine pornography.

Never mind that a looser statutory definition would almost certainly reach beyond schools. Make it broad enough — employ the same kind of vague legislative overreach and subsequent chilling effect that can cast doubt on “Everywhere Babies” — and Florida’s public libraries would also have to rethink everything from “ Gone Girl” to “The Great Gatsby.”

Even that might not be a big enough fix for some. The legally defining underpinning of criminal obscenity was determined by the Supreme Court in 1973. Under 2023′s hard-right leaning court, that decision is ripe to be overturned, one activist told the board.

All it takes is one state to mount a legal challenge. Florida, she said, “is the perfect state.”

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