The State of School Libraries: A Brief Update on Book Bans in Florida

By: Emily G. Finch, MSI

In a year where big publishers and libraries have not seen eye to eye (even dividing authors on the issues), Penguin Random House joined the non-profit PEN American Center Inc., several authors of banned books, and parents (on behalf of themselves and their children) in the fight to prevent book bans and safeguard first and fourteenth amendment rights in school libraries.[1] Suing the Escambia, Florida County School District and School Board, the plaintiffs filed an action on May 17, 2023 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Pensacola Division.[2] This suit marked the fever pitch of massive uptick of book banning, a trend sweeping, and championed in Florida. Beat out only by Texas (438 books) in the number of books banned from July to December of 2022, schools across Florida banned 357 titles.[3] In an report published in April 2023, PEN American Center Inc. noted several important trends in the year’s already 1,477 reported national book bans: (1) 20% were connected to organized advocacy groups, the Florida cofounded, conservative, nonprofit “Moms for Liberty,” lead this effort with connections to 58% of these bans, (2) 25% of the books banned could be connected to political pressure from elected or appointed officials, and (3) 31% of the bans can be attributed to newly enacted laws in Florida, Missouri, and Utah.[4] Florida’s presence in the aforementioned thirty-one percent rate of attribution to recent legislation can be tied to the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act (“Don’t Say Gay” law), Individual Freedom or Stop WOKE Act, and House Bill 1467, K-12 Education, School District Responsibilities, all of which went into effect on July 1, 2022.[5] These pieces of legislation prompted the book bans that united the PEN American Center Inc. v. Escambia County School District plaintiffs. Many eagerly awaiting the resolution of the case hoped the court’s decision would resolve debates over the constitutional validity (and general ethical considerations) surrounding both the practice of book banning and these laws. Unfortunately, those eager individuals may literally not get their day in court; on October 5, 2023, Judge T. Kent Wetherell II referred the case to mediation.[6] In the order the Court sought an:

amicable resolution that balances (a) the School Board’s obligations under state law to have a procedures in place to review the content of library books and its legitimate interest in not making pornographic or otherwise grade-level inappropriate books available to students in school/classroom libraries with (b) the book author/publisher plaintiffs’ understandable desire not to have their books black-listed solely for political reasons. The sooner that can happen, the better (and cheaper) for all concerned. To that end, although it is hard for the Court to understand how a school is constitutionally obligated to keep a potentially-inappropriate book on its library shelves simply because some parent or student wants the book to be there, it seems to the Court that the decision to remove or keep library books should be made by professional educators who have the expertise to assess the literary value and grade-level appropriateness of the books, and not politicians, federal judges, or individual citizens/parents/students who for their own personal reasons want a book removed from or kept in the library.

The language may seem innocuous on its face, but it reveals the pervasive reasoning that has encouraged the book banning trends to continue to flourish in Florida. The statement, “although it is hard for the Court to understand how a school is constitutionally obligated to keep a potentially-inappropriate book on its library shelves simply because some parent or student wants the book to be there,” should raise concern; the inverse of this sentiment is that because of some parents’ or school board members’ political beliefs or desires, schools should ban books and condone the violation of constitutional rights. Furthermore, where “seems to the Court that the decision to remove or keep library books should be made by professional educators who have the expertise to assess the literary value and grade-level appropriateness of the book. . .” may seem to be  a step in the direction of opposing unwarranted censorship, it ignores the fact that some educators and librarians/media specialists, the experts the court encourages the people to trust,  have been dismissed in relation to these bans or feel forced to leave the profession because they cannot do the work they are meant to without risking third-degree felony charges.[7] Furthermore, this statement fails to underscore the precariousness of the situation; these specialists find themselves juggling morals, ethics, professional standards, and the balancing of constitutional rights. The Florida Department of Education’s new media specialist training highlighted these risks, but those who did not attend the presentation would not have heard “the voiceover accompanying the training video offer . . . examples of what can count. ‘Critical Race Theory, culturally responsive teaching, social justice, social and emotional learning, and any other unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination are prohibited.’”[8] This more quietly spoken, or at least not as publicly facing  statement gets to one of the core issues facing librarians/media specialists, they are forced to juggle rationales attempting to sanction censorship, as indicated above, and peoples’ constitutional rights, but they also undermine and ignore student’s desires and entitlement to have access to representation, historical accuracy, diverse perspectives, and more in the books they read.

This difficulty faced by librarians/media specialists is highlighted when considering the content and context of the banned material especially as the rate of book challenges in Florida only continues to progress. Of Florida’s seventy-two educational districts, forty-three have faced at least one book challenge, and the Clay County School District takes the lead with over 870 attempted bans.[9] Consider also the top nine books challenged in Florida schools: The Hate U Give, Tricks, The Bluest Eye, Thirteen Reasons Why, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Beloved, Nineteen Minutes, The Kite Runner, and Drama: A Graphic Novel.[10] Four of these books were written by an author of color,  five deal with race and ethnicity often in the context of violence against certain groups, two deal with sexual themes around LGBTQ+ characters, and two deal with suicide, bullying, and teenage sexuality, real issues for the majority of young adult audiences. Highlighting that the dominant political overtones in these bans as opposed to their accuracy or merit, author of Nineteen Minutes, Jodi Picoult, noted

 “the book of mine that has been banned most frequently in the past six months—Nineteen Minutes—is about a school shooting and the effects of bullying. However, the reason cited for its inappropriateness for kids is not the mention of violence, but rather a single page that depicts a date rape using anatomically correct words for the human body. It is not a gratuitous scene and it is not sensationalistic. What does it say about our world when ‘keeping children safe’ means a book about school shootings is banned because it has a word for genitalia in it… but we don’t regulate the guns that cause those real-life shootings?”[11]

As of November 1, 2023, over 1,300 titles have been temporarily or permanently removed or restricted since the start of the 2021-2022 school year and over 2,400 titles faced challenges.[12] While the parties in PEN American Center Inc. v. Escambia County School District may be working towards a resolution, and unfortunately, may not provide advocates with the precedent or opportunity to interpret current legislation as desired, the battle for books and against censorship is clearly far from over, especially where both the bans and proposed solutions,  such as requiring parents opt-in to library access to their students,  continue to endanger librarians/media specialists, libraries, and the education and wellbeing of students. The actions taken that deprive students access from libraries, from fact, from learning, and from knowledge, are scarier and more damaging in the long run than any challenged books’ content could ever be. In a discussion of the problematic opt-in models currently being enacted in Florida school districts, the Florida Freedom to Read Project noted

[opt-ins]. . . are suppression tactics.  Not just in Clay County, but across the state where people now have to report whether or not their student can have access… to a library.  It is the suppression of the majority.  Students are losing educational opportunities. And they could lose many more.  How many students are going to be failed in the future because a permission slip never makes it home or is forgotten to be turned in? It will not stop at libraries.  Florida Citizens Alliance, in particular, wants ALL educational courses or events that they disagree with to be opt-in ONLY.  Sex-Ed.  Field Trips.  Group Events.  And yes, of course, libraries. How many students are going to be left out and left behind because of this?[13]

Florida is not stopping at students, evidence of the broader push for censorship and deprivation of access to knowledge and information can also been seen in the state’s prisons. Among the 28 states collecting information on censored titles in prisons, Florida is the leader with over 22,800 books banned.[14] Libraries and residents across the Florida need your help in the fight against censorship. If you are interested in learning more or supporting the cause, consider following and supporting Florida Freedom to Read Project, PEN America, and EveryLibrary, are resources for updates on this issue, ongoing petitions, email/letter writing campaigns, information and advocacy programming, and more. Libraries, which provide free access to knowledge, are for everyone, let’s keep them that way.


[1] See Hachette Book Grp., Inc. v. Internet Archive, No. 20-cv-4160 (JGK), 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50749, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 24, 2023) (holding the Internet Archive had infringed on the publishers copyright when it scanned print copies of books and lent them to users without permission or a valid transformative or fair use defense); see also Alison Stine, “A danger to democracy itself”: Authors fight back against limiting libraries, Salon (Sep. 29 2022, 4:32 PM), https://www.salon.com/2022/09/29/writers-letter-library-e-book-digital-rights/. See also Notice of Appeal, Hachette Book Grp., Inc. v. Internet Archive, Case, No. 1:20-cv-04160-JGK-OTW (2d Cir. Filed Sept. 11, 2023) (appealing the district court’s opinion).

[2] Complaint, PEN American Center Inc. v. Escambia County School District, No. 3:23-cv-10385 (N.D. Fla. filed May. 17, 2023).

[3] Kasey Meehan & Jonathan Friedman, Banned in the USA: State Laws Supercharge Book Suppression in Schools, (2023), https://pen.org/report/banned-in-the-usa-state-laws-supercharge-book-suppression-in-schools/ [hereinafter Banned in the USA].

[4] Id.

[5] H.R. 1557, 124th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Fla. 2022); H.R. 7, 124th Leg. Reg. Sess. (Fla. 2022); H.R. 1467, 124th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Fla. 2022).

[6] Order Referring Case to Mediation, PEN American Center Inc. v. Escambia County School District, 3:23cv10385-TKW-ZCB (N.D. Fla. Oct. 5, 2023).

[7] Josh Moody, New College of Florida Abruptly Dismisses Librarian, Inside Higher Ed, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/quick-takes/2023/05/04/new-college-florida-abruptly-dismisses-librarian (last visited Nov 30, 2023); Ruby Cramer, The Librarian Who Couldn’t Take it Anymore, Washington Post, (lNov.11, 2023 6:05 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/interactive/2023/florida-book-bans-school-rules/; Claire Woodcock, We Spoke to The Florida Teacher Who Was Fired For a Viral Video Of Empty School Library Shelves, Vice (Feb. 23, 2023), https://www.vice.com/en/article/epzjbn/florida-teacher-fired-for-viral-video-library-desantis.

[8] Solodev, Instructional Materials & Library Media, (2022), https://www.fldoe.org/academics/standards/instruct-materials.stml (last visited Nov 30, 2023);  Eesha Pendharkar, How Florida’s New School Librarian Training Defines Off-Limits Materials, Education Week, (Jan. 19, 2023), https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/how-floridas-new-school-librarian-training-defines-off-limits-materials/2023/01..

[9] Florida Freedom to Read Project, Florida Censorship Attempts, https://www.fftrp.org/florida_censorship_attempts (last visited Nov 30, 2023).

[10] Id.

[11] Jodi Picoult, What Florida Doesn’t Want You to Know About Its Book Bans, The Daily Beast (Mar. 13, 2023), https://www.thedailybeast.com/what-florida-doesnt-want-you-to-know-about-its-book-bans.

[12] Id.

[13] Florida Freedom to Read Project, The Danger Of “Opt-In” Library Usage, (Sept. 28, 2023), https://www.fftrp.org/the_danger_of_opt_in_library_usage..

[14] Pen America, New PEN America Report: U.S. Prisons Ban Staggering Numbers of Books, (Oct. 25, 2023), https://pen.org/press-release/new-pen-america-report-u-s-prisons-ban-staggering-numbers-of-books/.

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