Updated Jan 12, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Florida school book bans hit dictionaries

Illustration of a book as the bottom of a padlock.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A Florida school district is pulling nearly 2,000 books from its shelves — including some dictionaries and encyclopedias — to make sure they abide by a new state law.

Why it matters: The state law, which prohibits schools from carrying books that describe sexual content, comes as Florida continues to get pushback over its titles banned in prisons and classrooms.

Details: Northern Florida's Escambia County School District has taken away over 1,600 titles for review, including five dictionaries and eight different encyclopedias, according to PEN America earlier this week.

  • Part of the legislation, known as HB 1069, "expands parental rights in education by prohibiting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in Pre-K through 8th grade," according to the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
  • DeSantis signed the bill into law in May 2023, and it took effect on July 1.
  • The school board directed the district's librarians to review all books and remove any that may violate the legislation, per PEN America.

What's new: The district's rubric for reviewing the books, which the Florida Freedom to Read Project obtained, encourages librarians to use websites such as Common Sense Media and Book Looks to assess books for removal.

  • Book Looks was founded by a former Moms for Liberty member, according to Kasey Meehan, director of Freedom to Read at PEN America.

Situational awareness: Meehan said in a statement shared with Axios that "it's likely librarians were responding to vague language and responded with extreme caution given the chilled environment in Florida, and especially Escambia School District, over book access."

  • Meehan pointed to words and phrases in the district's rubric such as "'violence,' 'scariness' and 'sexual conduct.'"
  • "The books on the list are 'banned pending review,' but we know that review process will be slow and long, keeping books off shelves for months and perhaps even academic years," Meehan added.

Catch up quick: On Wednesday, a federal judge in Florida allowed a lawsuit that opposes the Escambia district's restrictions on 10 books related to race or LGBTQ+ identity to move forward.

  • The suit was filed last year by PEN America and Penguin Random House, in addition to some authors and parents.
  • They argued that the law only applies to classroom instruction, not library materials. They also allege in the suit that the school district violated parents' and students' First Amendment rights.

Escambia County Public Schools Superintendent Keith Leonard said in a statement shared with Axios on Thursday that "the dictionary has not been banned in our district."

  • Leonard added the district remains "committed to adhering to all statutes and regulations, while also providing valuable and varied literacy opportunities for every student."

Go deeper: Prisons are banning thousands of books

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional comment.

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