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Students push back against book bans as the scope of a new Florida law expands

Students stand in a corner of the board room carrying signs that say "Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance" and "Save the books."
Kerry Sheridan
WUSF Public Media
Students carried signs to the Pinellas County School Board meeting on February 14, 2023.

Training for the law, HB 1467, now says school media specialists should "err on the side of caution" if reading material aloud in a public meeting would make them uncomfortable.

It was standing room only at the Pinellas County School Board meeting in mid-February as students, parents and teachers came out in droves to protest the removal of Toni Morrison's 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye, from high schools last month following a parent's complaint.

"I feel like I'm living on the pages of a dystopian novel," said Largo High English teacher Heidi Arndt, who said she has been teaching the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451, about a book-burning fireman, for the past 30 years.

"It is a frightening time to be a teacher. And there is a big slew of our students right there," said Arndt, pointing to the the school board chamber where seats were filled to capacity.

"We just read Toni Morrison's Beloved. And I know that I care very deeply about the subjects in the book, and what we're learning in class," said Isabela Dosanjos, 17, a student in the Largo International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

"It's honestly an injustice that they're banning those kinds of books in schools. And I think it's very important that we stand up for our rights and what we believe in," she said.

Many came carrying paperback copies of The Bluest Eye, which they'd already read in class. Students said their teachers let them skip their regular classes for the 10:30 a.m. meeting, a lesson in democracy and speaking truth to power.

Teenager wearing American flag shirt walks away from podium at school board meeting
Kerry Sheridan
WUSF Public Media
Prisha Sherdiwala walks back to her seat after speaking at the podium

"While I do acknowledge that specific content in The Bluest Eye can be uncomfortable and difficult to read, it is for this exact reason I believe it is valuable to be analyzed in the classroom setting, even though others may not want to read this in public," Prisha Sherdiwala, 17, a student at Palm Harbor University High School, told the board.

"As young humans, some of us who will be adults in less than a year, we are capable of engaging with these challenging ideas," she told the board.

At issue in the parent's complaint against the book were two pages which contain passages describing a father raping his daughter.

Among those addressing the board was 16-year-old Eliza Lane, who pointed to legal arguments for keeping The Bluest Eye on shelves at schools. For one, Florida law says a book's literary merit on the whole must be considered, she noted.

Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved and has also won the Nobel Prize for Literature among other accolades. However, The Bluest Eye did not win any major awards.

"The Bluest Eye was banned, to my knowledge, for pornographic content. Pornography is defined in these guidelines as a depiction of erotic behavior intended to cause sexual excitement. That is not the purpose of those passages in The Bluest Eye. It is to shock and horrify readers into empathy for this character. And to help us to realize the flaws in our own society," Lane said.

People in the meeting raise both hands in the air, instead of clapping, in support of student Hannah Hipolito who is speaking at the podium
Kerry Sheridan
WUSF Public Media
A crowd that attended the meeting raise both hands in the air, instead of clapping, in support of student Hannah Hipolito, who is speaking at the podium.

According to the Florida Department of Education, HB 1467 "preserves the rights of parents to make decisions about what materials their children are exposed to in school."

But some adults at the Feb. 14 school board meeting questioned why the book challenge did not follow established procedures, and why the decision to pull the book from school shelves was made so hastily.

"How is it that one mother thinks that she can keep all the children of all the other mothers from reading that or any book? What gives her the right?" said Sarah Robinson.

"I also want to say that I understand where this is coming from. We have a governor with extreme views and high political aspirations, who is increasingly authoritarian and vindictive."

Gov. Ron DeSantis has pledged to protect parental rights and eliminate what he calls "woke indoctrination" in schools.

The law known as HB 1467 requires media specialists to undergo training to make sure library materials are not harmful to minors, and warns that violators face a third degree felony charge.

Superintendent Kevin Hendrick said the training distributed by the state Department of Education in January actually went further than the original law, and Pinellas County is trying to follow it.

"The training incorporated as part of this rule or law states that materials, which are neither pornographic nor harmful to minors may still be inappropriate for students, and schools should err on the side of caution when applying these tests," Hendrick said at the meeting.

A screenshot of the Powerpoint slide shows the third degree felony for violators of HB 1467
A slide issued by the Florida Department of Education shows the third degree felony threat for those who violate the law.

Inthe training video, which media specialists statewide now have to watch, a woman's voice says the following:

"It is good practice to assess whether or not you as an adult, making book selection decisions will be comfortable reading aloud the material in question in a public meeting.

"If you would not be comfortable reading the material in a public setting, then you should lean towards not making the material available in a public school library for children."

School board lawyer David Koperski said these spoken words represent a new interpretation of the law by the Florida Department of Education.

"It's almost as if it's creating a third category. And then it's defining that through an example of reading materials aloud at a public meeting. And so we now have to follow that, because as I said, that has the force of law at this point," Koperski said.

JoAnn Kintz, senior counsel at Democracy Forward — a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that brings challenges against government actors who they say undermine democracy — disagrees.

"One of the most glaring problems with this training itself is how far it extends beyond the statute," Kintz said.

Kintz said the law encourages self-censorship, and implicates free speech.

"The way and manner in which the Department of Education and the Board of Education adopted this training is very suspect in the sense that it violates both procedural and substantive laws. And it didn't comply with the transparency and accountability [requirements]," Kintz said.

A group of students stand by the wall, with teacher Heidi Arndt behind them, she is wearing a shirt that says "I'm with the banned."
Kerry Sheridan
WUSF Public Media
Students stand near teacher Heidi Arndt near the entryway, along the wall of the packed school board meeting.

As school districts across the state begin reviewing every book on their shelves, Pinellas County school leaders say they intend to follow the law as they've interpreted it — unless it is changed by the state or overruled in a court of law.

Students like Hannah Hipolito say they will continue to fight.

"There is irony in banning books, when so many of the greatest works of literature warn us of the repercussions of doing so," Hipolito told the board.

"I want to leave you all with a quote by Morrison that reads, 'Don't let anybody, anybody convince you this is the way the world is and therefore must be. It must be the way it ought to be.'

"And we get to decide how it ought to be," she said.

Students who are affected by the removal of books hope their input will be considered, as the district works on a new plan for handling challenges to books in the months ahead.

About 20 students stand together for a picture after the school board meeting, holding signs that say "Save the Books."
Kerry Sheridan
WUSF Public Media
Students posed for a picture after the meeting, some carrying signs against book bans.

Jennifer Wilson, who teaches IB English and Film at Largo High, said after the meeting that hearing the students gave her hope.

"I am the heartened to see the number of people who are taking this seriously, and who are willing to show up and voice their concern and dissent over the school district's decision," Wilson said.

"As I say to the students, they are the ones that give me hope that in spite of outward appearances, that there's still something to preserve here."

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.