State may put onus on Florida educators to police ‘frivolous’ book challenges

Florida is about to make it harder to challenge books in schools.

A new law — signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday — will limit the number of books that can be challenged by people without children in a school district, a move the governor said will help reduce the number of frivolous challenges across the state.

Currently, any Floridian can challenge however many books they want. Starting July 1, the new law will cap the number of book challenges residents without kids in school can file to one per month, though no penalties are outlined in the law. Because those residents pay taxes, DeSantis says they should still be able to object to books even if they don’t have kids in school.

“I wouldn’t say that someone who doesn’t have kids in school has no interest. I mean these are important institutions in our community,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Jacksonville on Tuesday. The cap, he added, is necessary because the state does not want to create a “cottage industry of people that are just trying to use this to advance themselves or advance a false political narrative.”

In addition to the changes in state law, the DeSantis administration on Wednesday will consider a rule that would penalize Florida school principals if the state determines they illegally prevented students from looking at library books in their schools. The punishment would include revoking or suspending their educator’s certificate.

The rule is broadly written, but if approved, school principals could be punished if their schools or school personnel prevent students from accessing any material used in a classroom, library or reading list unless they have reviewed the material and determined it violate state law.

The changes come as Florida has become a hot spot for book challenges, leading the nation in the number of books that schools have pulled from their shelves, according to data collected by the group PEN America between July 2022 and July 2023.

The surge in book challenges came after DeSantis backed legislation that made it easier to challenge books in Florida and state education officials told local school officials to “err on the side of caution” when selecting books for school libraries in order to comply with that law.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar said the new law and proposed rule will do little to address the book challenge issue in Florida, saying DeSantis has long empowered “fringe groups” that have led the charge in challenging books in schools.

“This rule does nothing to fix the vague language that caused the issue in the first place, no matter how much the Governor and Commissioner Manny Diaz try to shift blame,” Spar said. “Schools, teachers and media specialists have long been asking for guidance on this issue and once again, instead of providing students what they need, Florida’s elected and appointed officials decide to play the blame game instead of taking responsibility.”

Now, DeSantis is saying the intent of the law has been “abused” and says that the number of book challenges should be “very rare.”

“Let’s stop playing games with all of this,” DeSantis said.

According to PEN America, at least 1,400 titles have been pulled from Florida public schools.

State officials have lower numbers. Between July 2022 and July 2023, state officials say there were 1,218 objections to books that resulted in the removal of 286 books. More than half of those objections came from two school districts, Clay and Escambia.

Some of the titles that have been removed from circulation in some grades include encyclopedias, dictionaries, Toni Morrison’s first book “The Bluest Eye,” and the poem The Hill We Climb, which was recited by poet Amanda Gorman at the Jan. 20, 2021, inauguration of President Joe Biden.

DeSantis criticized efforts to challenge “classical books,” saying the state law is not intended to do that.

“If somebody is challenging a book that has been in schools a long time, no that is going to fail,” DeSantis said about what he expects the new law will do. “I think this goes a long way to dealing with some of the bad faith actors.”