NCAC is deeply concerned about a series of new Florida laws that threaten the ability of students to access information. They are likely to cause a dramatic increase in censorship in Florida’s public schools.
Taken together, three recently-passed bills (HB 7, known as the “Stop WOKE Act”; HB 1557, popularly dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill; and HB 1467, that addresses book challenges in schools) will almost certainly cause well-trained teachers and librarians to engage in self-censorship and make decisions based on political and social pressure, rather than their professional judgment. This is a true threat to Florida’s education system and seriously undermines free expression in schools.
The threat to free expression lies in the deliberately vague language of these bills, which attempt to skirt First Amendment protections. Such language leaves teachers and school administrators without a clear idea of what is prohibited, creating a danger that they will pull books and engage in self-censorship when they speak in the classroom to avoid possible punishment. One or more of these laws may eventually be declared unconstitutional. In the meantime, they are forcing teachers, librarians and other decision makers to lose focus on their educational and professional responsibilities.
These bills are an attack on students’ ability to access information they seek, teachers’ ability to adapt to individual student and classroom needs, academic freedom and local school leadership. They threaten to silence debate, discourage critical thinking and put Florida’s students at a deep disadvantage as they become citizens of the world.
On its face, the Stop WOKE Act only forbids one-sided discussion of “divisive concepts.” For example, it forbids instruction that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” a student to believe the divisive concepts. While it explicitly exempts instruction “in an objective manner without endorsement,” the risk of this law being misconstrued is made clear by an incident in Texas last year. After the enactment of a similar law, teachers were told to “make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.”
The language of the law is often unclear. For example, it forbids one-sided “instruction.” Does that include plays or publications created by drama or journalism classes? Are students forbidden from producing a theatrical version of Stamped, an anti-racist book that is frequently-challenged? What about student clubs? Can kids in the debate club present both sides of an issue when the subject is race or sexual identity?
The bill gives private citizens the right to file civil suits over for instruction or training which advocates certain concepts, but only for advocacy; in contrast, disinterested, objective discussion of those concepts is expressly permitted. Teachers are likely to self-censor and avoid all discussion of the concepts, even discussion in an objective manner.
HB 1467 uses a promise of greater transparency to justify two very worrisome provisions: all book review committee meetings must be open to the public, and the state must compile and send to all school districts a list of books that have been removed following challenges.
Book challenges are often highly-emotional and occur in hyper-local environments–fellow community members can vehemently disagree and those challenging books have used increasingly threatening and inflammatory language, including suggesting that anyone who does not oppose certain books is promoting “pedophilia” or “grooming” children.
NCAC frequently receives requests for anonymity from contacts reporting book challenges in their communities, especially in smaller communities. Clearly, public review committee meetings will expose reviewers to a wide range of social pressures from audience members, encouraging them to abandon the well-structured, objective, and educationally-based review criteria they are meant to use.
Requiring that lists of challenged books be publicized will certainly dissuade teachers and librarians from adopting those books, in order to avoid disruptive and time-consuming challenges, even if they deem the use or availability of those books to be in the best interests of students. Again, this bill encourages decision makers to pay more attention to social and political concerns than to educational and professional ones.
HB 1557–popularly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill–bars “classroom instruction” on sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3 and provides that instruction on LGBTQ issues in grades 4-12 must be age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate. While the bill does not contain any language prohibiting the use of the word “gay,” it certainly encourages teachers to avoid it.
On its face, the bill simply reinforces what is already true: sex ed does not begin in K-3 and is introduced in later grades in developmentally appropriate ways. However, does “classroom instruction” on gender identity include having a book on a classroom library shelf? Does it mean that a teacher could be punished for shelving–much less reading aloud–And Tango Makes Three, a picture book about two male penguins adopting an abandoned egg at the zoo (a true story, in fact!) that contains no sexual content whatsoever and does not even contain the word “gay”? This book does not discuss sexual orientation at all. It simply presents a story about two male penguins. But it has been one of the most frequently-challenged books of the past decade and many parents object to it. Many others love it and it has won several awards.
The bill also requires that parents be notified of any “change in the student’s services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.” The latter provision is vague, and arguably applies to situations in which a student comes out to a teacher. Because the law permits parents to sue and recover damages and attorneys fees if a district ostensibly violates these provisions and fails to correct the violation, lawsuit-averse districts (i.e., all districts) are likely to discourage teaching on LGBTQ issues and will also discourage teachers from discussing personal issues with students (not just LGBTQ issues, but all sorts of health-related issues).
NCAC is closely monitoring the implementation of these new laws. Similar bills have been introduced in several other states. Teachers and librarians in Florida and beyond need support and guidance to implement laws like this as narrowly as possible. NCAC is here to help.