Florida school district pulls dictionaries, encyclopedias from shelves to review for sexual content

Escambia County School District has pulled more than 1,600 books to review them for pornography or depictions of sexual conduct

Katie Hawkinson
Friday 12 January 2024 14:25 GMT
A view of the Florida State Capitol building in Tallahassee, Florida.
A view of the Florida State Capitol building in Tallahassee, Florida. (Getty Images)

A Florida school district has pulled hundreds of books to determine whether they should be permanently removed from schools, including several dictionaries and encyclopedias.

The Escambia County School District compiled a list of more than 1,600 books to be pulled from school shelves for “further review by media specialists,” to determine if they will be permanently removed, according to their website.

That list of books that could be banned pending review includes five dictionaries — such as Merriam-Webster’s Elementary Dictionary — and eight encyclopedias.

This review is to ensure the school district complies with Florida’s House Bill 1069, which requires the suspension of materials “alleged to contain pornography or obscene depictions of sexual conduct, as identified in current law, pending resolution of an objection to the material.” The law, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis, went into effect on 1 July 2023.

Superintendent Keith Leonard said in a statement it is inaccurate to say the district has imposed a ban on this list of more than 1,600 books.

“I want to clarify that our district has not imposed a ‘ban’ on over 1600 books,” Mr Leonard said. “Additionally, the dictionary has not been banned in our district.”

“Our school district, and especially our dedicated media specialists, remain committed to adhering to all statutes and regulations, while also providing valuable and varied literacy opportunities for every student,” he continued.

The fact that many of these books are even under review reveals a concerning trend in Florida, Kasey Meehan, program director for PEN America’s Freedom to Read project, told The Independent.

“This demonstrates that there is a chilled atmosphere in Florida where we’re seeing dictionaries being pulled to be considered under a law that rejects sexual content in schools,” Ms Meehan said.

“Even though these books may likely go back when we’re talking about encyclopedias and dictionaries, the idea that they’re pulled out of extreme caution just to meet this legislation is alarming,” she continued.

A spokesperson for the Florida Freedom To Read Project told The Independent the review in Escambia is “ridiculous.”

“The language in the law is bad, and the guidance from the Florida Department of Education is irresponsible,” the spokesperson said. “They are the ones with the power to fix this. Until then, districts will continue to ‘err on the side of caution’ as they have been told to do at the expense of our children’s education.

Instances of book bans in Florida — taking place under HB 1069 as well as HB 1557, better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — have disproportionately affected books authored by or written about people of colour and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Both parents and national organisations are fighting back on bans throughout the state.

PEN America filed a complaint last year against Escambia County School District and the Escambia County School Board alleging an earlier set of book bans and restrictions violated students’ right to free speech and equal protection under the law, according to a press release from the organization.

Oral arguments for the complaint began on Wednesday, 10 January.

Meanwhile, a federal district judge ruled this week that another lawsuit from PEN America could move forward challenging a Florida panhandle school district’s removal of several books about race and the LGBTQ+ community.

The Independent has contacted the Escambia County School District and members of the Escambia County School Board for comment.

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