Back to Censorship

As school goes into session, the culture wars flame on

Chronicling censorship has become a disturbing back-to-school rite of passage. 

In Florida, restrictions continue to suffocate class libraries as chaotic debate swirls about whether schools can offer AP Psychology or Shakespeare’s complete works. 

The AP Psychology class, which follows a national College Board-developed curriculum, includes lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation. Some Florida districts opted out, worried about running afoul of new state laws prohibiting most lessons with sexual content. 

The College Board tweeted Aug. 3 that it was “sad to have learned that today the Florida Department of Education has effectively banned AP Psychology in the state … we cannot modify AP Psychology in response to regulations that would censor college-level standards for credit, placement, and career readiness.”

Other districts, like Leon County in Tallahassee, announced it would teach the original AP course in its entirety; Palm Beach County reversed course Aug. 9 to say that it too would offer the original class. 

In Clay County, Fla., southwest of Jacksonville, a new policy requiring parents to opt in their 6th-12th grade students to any school library access took effect. Worth noting: Last year, when the policy was opt-out of library access, a total of three parents did so. At the same time, the district removed dozens of books due to challenges. Recent titles pulled for review include national indie bestseller and Locus Award finalist Elatsoe, celebrated graphic novel Ghost World, assorted Game of Thrones books and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild

In Hillsborough County near Tampa, teachers planned to offer students selected excerpts from Shakespeare classics, in lieu of previous requirements to read a complete novel or play from the Bard each semester. The move was an attempt to keep schools in compliance with the new laws. 

“I think the rest of the nation – no, the world, is laughing at us,” high-school reading teacher Joseph Cool told the Tampa Bay Times. “Taking Shakespeare in its entirety out because the relationship between Romeo and Juliet is somehow exploiting minors is just absurd.”

After the news from Hillsborough broke, Florida education commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr. released his suggested reads for the month — including Romeo and Juliet. The constant shifts in stance from officials underscores the challenges of interpreting the new laws, leading in many cases to “overcompliance,” tweeted advocacy group Florida Freedom to Read Project. 

“If FLDOE really wanted to correct the censorship, it would clearly state that Toni Morrison should be a part of AP curriculum, and that Angie Thomas, Dashka Slater, Jodi Picoult, Nic Stone, David Levithan, and so many others belong on our high school library shelves,” the group tweeted

As schools twist to accommodate state regulations, opponents of these restrictions are taking the battle to court. In Texas, booksellers and librarians are fighting a new state law that requires vendors to rate their books for sexual content. Independent bookstores in Austin and Houston joined plaintiffs that include the ACLU and the American Booksellers Association in filing suit against the law, arguing that it sets an impossible hurdle. 

The law “would require us to retroactively report every book ever purchased from us at the bookstore registers, at a festival (like the Texas Book Festival), at an author event, or any other public setting that may have been bought for circulation at a school,” said Charley Rejsek, CEO of Austin’s BookPeople, during her testimony against the bill earlier this year.

“This is not possible as we have never been required to keep these kinds of records and do not have a way to create them. Due to the lack of records, it would be impossible for us to rate all books we may have sold that are still in active circulation after 52 years in business.”

Meanwhile, some Texas districts are pulling books with all types of content as they forge quicker pathways to removal. In Katy ISD outside of Houston, the school board halted all library purchases over the summer and shifted already-purchased new books into storage until the district created an updated review policy. The new policy, adopted July 31, expands the authority of the board to pull books or block purchases of certain titles. 

Many of the books Katy ISD removed from student access didn’t contain any sexual content. One woman described as a “constituent” by a conservative member of the school board filed complaints against dozens of books, citing everything from “climate change” to “all the Chinese lunch food goes bad” as cause for concern. The complaint dinged Caldecott medalist Dan Santat’s graphic novel Aquanaut as an “activist book against marine parks.” 

In Houston proper, school libraries are on the chopping block after the state’s education agency took over operation of the school district in lieu of closing one low-performing school. The state-appointed new superintendent drew ire in July for his plans to turn some district libraries into discipline centers and reassign media specialists in dozens of district schools. 

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner decried the plan, noting the targeted schools primarily served students of color. “You cannot have a situation where you’re closing libraries for some schools in certain neighborhoods and there are other neighborhoods where there are libraries fully equipped,” Turner said during a city council meeting. “What the hell are you doing?” 

Leaders of both the Texas and American library associations also criticized the idea. Opponents of the plan, including educators, elected officials and parents, rallied Aug. 5 outside of district headquarters and planned a read-in at the Aug. 10 school board meeting in protest. 

As in previous years, conservative efforts to restrict access aren’t limited to school campuses. 

In Mississippi, public libraries changed their system July 1 to accommodate a new state law limiting access to materials for patrons younger than 18. The minimum age to get a library card without parental consent is now 18 instead of 16. The library froze the accounts of all existing library card holders younger than 18, requiring each to come to a branch with a parent or guardian to restore access. 

St. Charles County libraries, just northwest of St. Louis, Mo., also hiked the age for getting a card without parental consent from 16 to 18 in response to a new state law. And in St. Tammany Parish in eastern Louisiana, public libraries now have a stepped system that at its most restrictive prohibits patrons under 18 from checking out anything shelved as a young-adult or adult book.

The future of the entire Columbia County Rural Library District east of Walla Walla, Wash., is at stake after a county resident filed a petition to dissolve the district due to the LGBTQ books in its catalog. Voters there will determine its fate in the next general election. 

Meanwhile, in Wyoming, the Campbell County library board fired its library director after she refused to remove or relocate books with LGBTQ content on demand. The board dropped its membership in the American Library Association last fall over the professional association’s policies supporting such books. 

Terri Lesley’s official firing happened at a public board meeting with hundreds of audience members. As she rose to leave the room after her dismissal, the crowd erupted in cheers for Lesley and jeers for the board. 

I can’t remember the last time I was flipped off by a bunch of little gray-haired old ladies,” board chair Charles Butler told The Daily Beast.  

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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