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‘When in doubt, ban it.’ Not even lawyers can decipher Florida’s book law | Opinion

Catchy slogans don’t necessarily make good laws.

It’s one thing to rally for “parental rights” and against improper educational materials at public schools. But Florida lawmakers, so good at politicking, seem to have forgotten the basics of lawmaking: writing clear policies that the rest of the state can follow.

If a group of lawyers can’t figure out what a law does, that’s the sign of one of two things: The Legislature, egged on by Gov. Ron DeSantis, got sloppy and rushed through poorly written bills that didn’t get properly vetted. Or vagueness is the intent.

The Miami Herald obtained email exchanges among school-district attorneys and the Florida Association of District School Superintendents that show their confusion over a new law that imposed requirements on the review and disclosure of school books and materials. This is a serious matter because, under Florida statute, librarians and educators could face third-degree felony charges if they “knowingly” distribute content that’s harmful to students. The emails were first obtained by the Florida Freedom to Read Project.

The lawyers wrangled over the word “masturbation” — is its mere mention enough to get a book removed? They were confused about whether the new law would hold schools liable for material sold at book fairs held on campuses. They sought clarification on whether a two-letter word in the law — “or” — meant that all sexual material should be removed, “even if the book itself, taken as a whole, has serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value and is therefore not obscene/harmful to minors,” John Palmerini, deputy general counsel for the School Board of Orange County, wrote in an email to the Department of Education.

These are important questions because, if taken to an extreme, House Bill 1467 could justify banning the Bible or any coming-of-age story over sexual references, as one lawyer wrote. In a vacuum of guidance, school districts are left on their own.

Some of the most important American novels contain sexual depiction. The main character in Toni Morrison’s classic “The Bluest Eye,” one of the most banned books in the country, becomes pregnant after being raped by her alcoholic father. This isn’t a book about sex. It’s about a Black girl who wishes to have blue eyes, a discussion about racism, poverty and their perverted impacts — topics that Florida also doesn’t want discussed in classrooms.

Throughout the emails, there was a common warning to educators: Err on the side of caution. This is also one of the recommendations that the state Department of Education offered in its online “Library Media and Instructional Materials Training.”

That might be why Florida led the nation on book bans, accounting for 40% of materials removed from school shelves from July 2022 to June 2023, according to a tally by PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression. Most books were removed pending a school review.

That usually translates into librarians self-censoring, avoiding any materials that one parent or activist group might challenge. In fact, panic and overreactions have been the results of many of Florida’s vague laws, flawed products of the governor’s fight against “woke.” The most infamous one, which critics call “Don’t say gay,” left teachers wondering whether they could even show movies to students that contain gay characters, Palmerini wrote in one of the emails. The law banned classroom instructions about sexual orientation and gender identity up to eight grade when Republicans expanded it this year.

After HB 1467 went into effect, requiring all reading materials be reviewed by a school employee holding a valid media specialist certificate, teachers in Manatee County draped their classroom libraries with sheets. In Duval County, school officials pulled a book about Latino baseball player Roberto Clemente, though it was later reinstated after backlash. A school in Miami-Dade County prohibited the poem, “The Hill We Climb,” read at President Joe Biden’s inauguration from being accessible to elementary students.

These might have been over-the-top reactions, but the point of laws like HB 1467 seems to be precisely to leave enough room for interpretation.

DeSantis says book bans are a “hoax,” and Republicans are quick to say that Florida hasn’t banned any books. They might be technically right, but their deflection is disingenuous. They might not personally be perusing school catalogs looking for content they consider subversive, but they empowered groups like Moms for Liberty to do their bidding by pressuring schools to do so.

One way or the other, Florida is to blame for any of those books that’s no longer available to students.