The State Board of Education on Wednesday approved a new rule that will lead to Florida officials publishing an annual list of library books and instructional materials that have drawn public objections, in a move that the board’s chairman said will “provide transparency for our families.”
The rule will carry out part of a controversial 2022 law (HB 1467) that increased scrutiny of school library books and instructional materials, amid a broader push by state officials to weed out inappropriate content. Last year’s law, in part, was designed to give parents and the public increased access to the process of selecting and removing books and other materials.
“A lot of these books that have been removed by districts have been for pornographic or graphic materials that don’t belong in schools, but it is done at a local level,” state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., said during Wednesday’s meeting.
The new rule adopted Wednesday provides reporting guidelines for districts to give information to the state about materials that have been objected to.
For example, districts will be required to report the bases for objections, including whether books and materials were challenged under claims that they contained pornographic content or were inappropriate for a grade level or age group.
Districts also would have to report the “rationale for removing, discontinuing, or limiting access to the material or not taking any of these actions.”
The state Department of Education ultimately will compile a list of all books that are removed or discontinued as a result of objections and, as a requirement of the law, “disseminate the list to school districts for consideration in their selection procedures.”
Under the rule, districts by June 30 of each year will be required to report their objection lists to the state Department of Education. The department subsequently would publish the statewide objections list by August 30.
State Board of Education Chairman Ben Gibson touted the rule as allowing for a “standardized reporting mechanism” statewide.
“It does continue to provide transparency for our families. It will also give us a way to post that material, which is required,” Gibson said.
But the larger push to ramp up scrutiny of school-library books and other materials has drawn strong objections from groups that advocate for First Amendment rights.
A federal lawsuit filed last week included plaintiffs such as the free-speech organization PEN America. The challenge alleged that Escambia County’s school district violated the First Amendment by removing or restricting access to more than 150 library books.
“Ensuring that students have access to books on a wide range of topics and expressing a diversity of viewpoints supports a core function of public education, preparing students to be thoughtful and engaged citizens,” the organization said in a statement Wednesday.
Meanwhile, new requirements related to the process of restricting or removing books soon will be coming online in Florida.
A new law (HB 1069) signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last week includes a requirement that any books objected to on the bases that they contain pornographic material or describe “sexual conduct” be removed within five days of an objection and remain unavailable to students until the objection is resolved.
The measure is slated to take effect in July.
The incoming requirements came up during a brief discussion between state board member Grazie P. Christie and Paul Burns, a chancellor with the state education department.
“When a person, when a parent or member of the district objects to a work, how soon does the school district have to respond? I mean, I can imagine a scenario where you find an objectionable book and you know that your third-grader has access to it, and you’re worried about every day that goes by that your third-grader is walking by that pornographic book, for instance,” Christie said.
Burns noted that each district is responsible for setting their own policies about objectionable materials.
“I will say that, I’m kind of foreshadowing here, that you might see us coming back to this board. Because there was some legislation … that’s going to continue to help with this work,” Burns replied in part.
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