“And The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, who’s a problematic author,” spits Bruce Friedman into the microphone at the October 6 Clay County District Schools board meeting. Baldwin’s classic is among the nearly 2,000 books on a list that Friedman, president of the Florida chapter of No Left Turn in Education, claims to have that are inappropriate and he will be challenging in the district. If Friedman’s name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s likely because he earned fame throughout right-wing circles for having his mic cut off in late June at a board meeting when reading a passage from a book he planned to challenge.
Florida has been an epicenter of book bans over the last 18 months, particularly since Moms For Liberty, a right wing extremist group, was founded in Brevard County. Beyond that, Florida has since introduced an array of new state legislation, including House Bill 1557 (aka the “Don’t Say Gay” law), which have created an environment ripe for censorship. School districts have implemented various measures in the hopes of being compliant. In some communities, that has involved books being banned or never showing up on shelves; in others, it has involved the development of stricter library policies concerning materials that can be in the collection and the opportunity for parents to choose whether or not their students have access to school libraries at all.
Over the summer, Clay County revisited their school library materials policies to be compliant with House Bill 1467. Because of how quickly the legislation moved at the state level, the new policies were adapted via an emergency basis. After the new manual was put on the district website for public viewing and consideration, the board voted to approve the new manual at the August meeting.
The updated manual, with redlined additions, is available in full here. The manual outlines every Florida State Statute related to library materials in schools. Removed from the manual is a section on the students’ rights to access material:
Banned Books Week was eliminated as an annual celebration:
And the selection criteria of material in school libraries has been redefined, emphasizing three main purposes of the collection and ensuring that materials do not meet the definition of pornography. It also widens the number of individuals who may be involved in the material selection process:
The manual goes on to detail who comprises the reconsideration committee when materials have been challenged, along with a timeline breakdown from submission of the complaint, to the meeting, to when materials–if retained–will return to shelves. Any decision made about the material applies to books district-wide; if a picture book is removed from the school where the challenge emanated, it will be removed from all schools in Clay County.
Although the material is removed from shelves during the review period, there are no explicit requirements for anyone who is part of the review committee to read the material in full.
In fact, not even the individual filing a complaint needs to have read the material.
The final decision rests in the hands of the district superintendent, who can choose to accept the committee’s votes or override them. However, if the individual who filed the book complaint doesn’t like the superintendent-approved decision of the reconsideration meeting with the committee comprised of administrators, educators, and community members, they have ten days to appeal that decision, which leaves it up to the school board to decide. Clay County’s school board, now in the hands of right-wing “parental rights” advocates after the recent election, can then decide based on their values, rather than what’s written in the policy–or what’s right for the students they ostensibly serve.
Hundreds of book challenges have been pouring into Clay County District Schools over the last few months. Even prior to the new materials challenge policies, Clay County was an example of how books get banned in America. One thing worth noting about the school district, which differs from most other districts in the country, is that the Superintendent is an elected position. David Broskie, the current Superintendent, was elected in March 2020. And because his position is elected, Broskie finds himself in the precarious position of defending the rights of students or pandering to groups like No Left Turn and Moms For Liberty to keep his job.
The Clay County school board hasn’t been without controversy itself. Following Friedman’s public comment in June, Ashley Gilhousen, who sits on the board, not only talked with Fox News about the need to get “pornographic” books out of the library, but demanded disciplinary action against the school librarians who permitted these books.
Gilhousen goes on to suggest that the reason these books end up in school libraries is because of “bonus” books publishers include with school library orders (a complete falsehood).
In updating the policies around book selection, and as part of the new laws within the state, Clay County has made theirs publicly available. They mirror what is in the broader manual and emphasize compliance with state statutes. Of particular note is the final line about sex in printed material:
In other words, sex in books and whether or not it is permissible is open to interpretation. There is no note in this policy, in the materials challenge policy, nor in the library manual more broadly that the definition of obscenity is met via the three-prong Miller Test.
It’s curious, then, to see on the Clay County District Schools website a list of books entitled the “District Reconsideration List.” The list, currently hovering at 100 titles, features a wide variety of books, including classics of American literature like Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; foundational and award-winning young adult literature including This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki and Looking for Alaska by John Green; and new books including Mary HK Choi’s Yolk. These are the books currently being tackled via challenges from the likes of Friedman, board member Gilhousen, and others involved in local chapters of No Left Turn in Education and Moms For Liberty. They are the first 100 of what is anticipated to be nearly 2000 challenges.
But most curious of all is the status column of the document.
Why would librarians weed new books?
Why would librarians weed foundational texts that support the academic needs of students and faculty?
Why would librarians weed popular and award-winning books from their collection?
Indeed, the removal of the 40+ books listed above under “weeded/deselected” are out of alignment with the district’s own weeding policies in the new library manual:
In a matter of weeks, it is pretty impressive to think that Clay County District School librarians heard, read, and followed through on their professional duties relating to books like The Fire Next Time, per Friedman’s complaints at the October school board meeting. Especially as the book, its content, and its author are classics of the American literary landscape and support both the intellectual and recreational needs of students.
Or have they?
While weeding–the systematic removal of outdated, old, or unused materials–is a regular practice within libraries, and deselection–the identification of materials out of alignment with selection policies–helps ensure a library does not inadvertently have inappropriate material, in the case of Clay County, they’re being noted as the reason books challenged within the district are disappearing.
This public record of book challenges and their status is a clever way to push responsibility of censorship off those who have taken it up as their responsibility, per the manual, and lay it at the hands of librarians. It conflates regular library maintenance practices with book removal in a way that not only undermines the professionalism of library professionals but actively harms students who are having their access to tremendous works of literature revoked without due process.
A due process developed by the district.
A due process wherein the elected superintendent- or in the case of appeals, the school board- has the final say in whether books do or do not remain in the schools.
A due process which is nothing but a circle in which the political agendas of conservative book banners can submit thousands of complaints, run them through the district’s new process in which no one needs to actually read the material, appeal the decision to the school board, and be met with like-minded politically-driven representation. Individuals like Bruce Friedman, whose agenda is loud and clear, get to decide what students have access to and know that, even if they lose their initial case, they can turn to folks like Gilhousen to get the job done.
Not only do students lose, but now, librarians and educators are put in the position of looking like the enemies here when in fact, they’ve had little to no say in the process at all.