Ron DeSantis tells Florida teachers to remove ‘unvetted’ books from classrooms or face prosecution

Florida governor Ron DeSantis wearing a navy suit, white shirt and red tie, stands in front of a microphone at a press conference

Teachers in Florida are removing “unvetted” books from their school libraries and classrooms, fearing prosecution under a new law requiring books to be approved for their age groups.

A chilling new bill, put forward by Florida governor Ron DeSantis, requires all reading material in schools across the state to be selected by an employee with a valid “educational media specialist” certificate, ie a librarian rather than a general teacher. 

Material in books available at schools must also be “free of pornography” and “appropriate for the age level and group”.

The law does not require that teachers remove books from their libraries until they can be vetted, and there is no deadline as to when classroom books must be vetted, however, teachers have said they are covering or removing books out of “caution” due to fears of being prosecuted if they do not comply. 

One affected school district in Florida is Manatee County, with some teachers “packing up” their school libraries out of caution after the school board reportedly directed them to remove their “unvetted” books.

Kevin Chapman, the chief of staff for the Manatee County School District, told the Herald Tribune that the school district did not directly advise teachers to remove classroom libraries. Several teachers in the state, however, have gutted their libraries to avoid being punished for falling foul of the new policy.

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Florida teacher Becky Newman explained that the new vetting process is “cumbersome” and that finding a list of approved books is “incredibly difficult”. 

“My heart is broken for Florida students today as I am forced to pack up my classroom library,” she wrote on Facebook.  

“Due to the new law that went into effect on 31 December, all Manatee teachers must remove all books that have not been ‘vetted’ by the state or risk being charged with a third-degree felony and losing our license.

“The vetting process for new books is cumbersome, so even accepting donated books from parents and community members will not be allowed.  

“The process of finding the list of approved books is also incredibly difficult.”

The newsletter Popular Information asked Chapman if the new guidelines for Florida schools were linked to the state’s infamous Don’t Say Gay law, and if schools were required to remove books that contained LGBTQ+ content, however he claimed librarians must simply refer to their training in order to check if a book is “inappropriate”. 

He claimed librarians are expected to apply the “specialised training for media centre specialists” as approved by the Florida Department of Education, which includes “new definitions of inappropriate material”. 

The Don’t Say Gay law, which bans the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in school classrooms for a certain age group, has already seen the removal of several books from schools across the state of Florida.

Books under fire by Florida school districts include And Tango Makes Three, about a same-sex penguin couple who adopt a chick, and comedian John Oliver’s A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo about a gay bunny.

The news comes as it was found that almost half of books banned in US schools contain LGBTQ+ themes or characters, with more than 2,532 instances of individual book bans in the last year. 

The most-banned book in the US between July 2021 and June 2022 was Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer, about growing up as non-binary and asexual. Other targeted LGBTQ+ books included All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M Johnson, Melissa by Alex Gino and Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin.

The research, by PEN America, found 41 per cent of books were banned for simply featuring people who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community or explicitly addressing queer themes. 

Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, said the recent wave of bans “represents a coordinated campaign to banish books” waged by “sophisticated, ideological and well-resourced advocacy organisations”. 

“This censorious movement is turning our public schools into political battlegrounds, driving wedges within communities, forcing teachers and librarians from their jobs and casting a chill over the spirit of open inquiry and intellectual freedom that underpin a flourishing democracy,” Nossel said. 

PinkNews has contacted the School District of Manatee County for comment.