New Florida rules tell school librarians to ‘err on side of caution’ when picking books

ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida’s school librarians face new scrutiny, and even the threat of criminal prosecution, under a new state rule adopted Wednesday that urges them to “err on the side of caution” when selecting books for their campuses.

The rule approved by the State Board of Education stems from a new state law pushed by Republican leaders. Critics say it will have a “chilling effect” on educators and will allow those with conservative views to dictate what books all Florida students can select at their schools.

<p>Storage bins with books and instructional materials are seen on Oct. 5, 2021, at Sawgrass Bay Elementary School in Clermont, Florida.</p>

Willie J. Allen Jr, Orlando Sentinel

Storage bins with books and instructional materials are seen on Oct. 5, 2021, at Sawgrass Bay Elementary School in Clermont, Florida.

Ahead of the board’s vote, Orange County Superintendent Maria Vazquez said Tuesday that her district had pulled three books, all dealing with sex or sexual themes, from school libraries after reviewing the state’s new training for media specialists required under the new rule.

“Now that we have that,” she said, “the recommendation is those books be pulled.”

If Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed the legislation, and the state board want to protect parental rights and freedom “they would support policies and rules that allow parents to put restrictions on their own children while not limiting others,” said Stephana Ferrell, a founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, in a text.

The board’s action “will most certainly limit our students’ freedom to read,” added Ferrell, whose group opposes efforts to restrict or remove books from public schools.

But supporters say the new law, rule and training provide much-needed scrutiny of books in media centers and classrooms and more ways for parents to learn what is on school shelves.

“We have seen time and time again questionable and inappropriate material that has entered our schools,” said Paul Burns, deputy chancellor for educator quality at the Florida Department of Education, at Wednesday’s state board meeting.

He said the new required training for school media specialists will help insure the “appropriateness” of books available in schools.

The board unanimously approved the rule after hearing from about 15 speakers, most representing conservative groups that wanted even stricter prohibitions and who complained the new rule contained a “loophole” that would allow some books with sexual content to be approved because they have literary merit.

Those speakers included a man with the group No Left Turn in Education who said he’d challenged 500 books in Clay County schools, and several members of Moms for Liberty, which had two members on the state panel tapped to help draft the new training. The group has pushed for books to be removed from school libraries across the state.

Michelle Beavers, chair of the Brevard County’s moms group and a member of that work group, said her goal was strong language that “tells librarians ‘You need to be careful and make sure it has serious literary value before it comes into our library.’ ”

Another mother said, “Not all literature is beneficial to students.”

Tom Grady, the board’s chair, said those were “helpful comments” and asked if the board could consider their worries about a “loophole.” But a department attorney told the board what was described as a “loophole” was Florida’s law on pornography, which says in part that books with sexual content or nudity are considered pornography only if they are “without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”

The new training provides information on how to select books for school and classroom libraries and cautions teachers pornography is against the law and that distributing it to a minor is a felony. It tells media specialists, or teachers certified to run libraries, and teachers to find books that meet state standards and the age and reading level of their students and “support the broad racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and cultural diversity of the students of this state.”

But it is also full of warnings.

“Media specialists should always err on the side of caution when selecting materials,” says the narrator during the online training. “It is good practice to assess whether or not you as an adult making book selection decisions would 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 than you should lean toward not making the material available in a public school library for children.”

The training also tells teachers they should be careful buying books that were removed or restricted in other school districts.

“The language … essentially begs for statewide book bans without making it an official ask of the state,” wrote Ferrell and other members of the Freedom to Read group in an email to the state board, asking it to vote against the rule.

The group argues the training will encourage “self-censorship” among teachers and administrators and limit what books students can access.

“Having a government representative deny someone access to a book to read quietly to themselves because that government representative would feel uncomfortable reading it aloud to a general audience of all ages is viewpoint censorship,” they wrote.