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Hundreds of books removed from Florida public school libraries based on constitutionally suspect guidance

Following the Florida Department of Education’s misinterpretation of state law, school libraries unnecessarily jettison classic and contemporary books.
small boy reading a book in a library

UPDATED (June 4, 2024): Victory! On May 28, FIRE followed up its letter to the Florida Department of Education with a public comment concerning its proposed library media training document, which misinterpreted state law governing school library materials. The following day, before approving the training document, the DOE amended the inaccurate slide flagged by FIRE. The amended materials now accurately reflect the law and make clear that districts must evaluate challenged library books’ suitability for students of different grade levels, rather than impose a blanket ban on materials depicting or describing “sexual conduct.” This change should help stem the tide of unnecessary and potentially unconstitutional censorship. 

FIRE continues to urge the Florida DOE to issue a follow-up letter to school districts correcting the similarly inaccurate information in the October memorandum. 

“Anna Karenina” is out. 

“Brave New World”? Gone. 

What about “Atlas Shrugged,” “Catch-22,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Dune,” “The Man in the Iron Mask,” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God”? 

All removed from every school library in a Florida school district serving 50,000 K-12 students. That district, Collier County Public Schools, along with others across the state, pulled hundreds of books from school library shelves in apparent reliance on Florida Department of Education guidance interpreting Florida’s House Bill 1069 from 2023, a recently enacted state law that established review procedures for certain instructional and library materials at Florida public schools.

The only problem? That guidance substantially mischaracterizes HB 1069. As a result, districts removed numerous books outside of formal review procedures, raising First Amendment concerns. Now, FIRE is calling on Florida DOE to issue revised guidance to avoid depriving students of access to age-appropriate library materials based on misinterpretations of state law. 

Florida law requires school districts to consider the age-appropriateness of challenged materials for different grade levels

HB 1069, which went into effect in July 2023, directs school districts to set up processes to review formal objections by parents and county residents to school and classroom library materials. (The law also addresses objections to instructional materials, but FIRE’s concerns are related to Florida DOE guidance about library materials.) The process must include the opportunity for the parent or resident to provide evidence that a challenged item meets one of the following criteria: 

  • “Is pornographic” or prohibited under Florida’s “harmful to minors” law;
  • “Depicts or describes sexual conduct” as defined in Florida statute, unless required for instruction; 
  • “Is not suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented”; or
  • “Is inappropriate for the grade level and age group for which the material is used.”

If a school district finds that the challenged material meets the first criterion above, the law requires the district to completely discontinue use of that material. However, if the challenged content instead meets one of the other criteria, including descriptions of “sexual conduct,” the law directs the school district to discontinue use only “for any grade level or age group for which such use is inappropriate or unsuitable.” 

Some books that reference sex, including many classic works of literature, may be suitable for an 18-year-old high school senior but not for a ten-year-old fourth grader. HB 1069 takes that into account in directing districts to remove the material only for those students for whom the district deems such material inappropriate — not necessarily all students. 

In contrast to the law itself, a Florida DOE memorandum on HB 1069 issued last October instructs school districts that school libraries “may not contain content that…[d]epicts or describes sexual conduct.” 

These misguided policies frustrate students’ intellectual curiosity and pursuit of a high-quality education. Florida’s students deserve better.

In other words, the memo incorrectly advised schools they must permanently remove all such materials from all libraries, rather than evaluate for which grades the material is appropriate. Under the department’s interpretation, a school apparently could not even stock “1984” in high school libraries because one paragraph implies two characters had sex, with language like, “He had pulled her down onto the ground,” and “The youthful body was strained against his own.” 

The department also recently proposed training materials that reiterate that the depiction or description of sexual conduct is enough to require a book’s removal from all school and classroom libraries. But this is not the law. (The Florida DOE is accepting public comments on the training materials until May 29.)

Districts respond to the guidance by emptying shelves

Districts around Florida removed hundreds of books from library shelves in response to HB 1069, and many appear to have removed those books based on the misleading Florida DOE guidance. For example, a “Prohibited Content Acknowledgement Form” used by Polk County Public Schools copies the department’s guidance nearly verbatim. That district’s school library media committee must sign a form to affirm they “understand that material containing any amount of . . . sexual conduct as defined by Florida law is prohibited from all school and classroom libraries.”

Public schools understandably place significant emphasis on age-appropriateness, literary merit, and potential contribution to pedagogical goals when evaluating library books. However, school officials must not make curation decisions based on hostility to certain ideas or viewpoints. 

Although the law directs school districts to create processes to review formally challenged materials, many school administrators and library personnel were so concerned about violating the law they didn’t wait for material to be challenged and instead undertook proactive reviews of their collections. In many cases, the district reviewers apparently didn’t even read many of the books they ultimately took off the shelves. Instead, they relied on online reviews, blogs, and discussion boards. Someone on Reddit saying that T.H. White’s telling of the Arthurian legend “has sex in it” was enough to get “The Once and Future King” banished for thousands of students in Collier County. The explanation for nixing “Anna Karenina” noted that “reviews discuss sexual behavior but not specific page.”

The overall result is unnecessary and likely unconstitutional censorship emptying libraries throughout the state. As FIRE explained in our letter to the Florida DOE:

These process-free removals of all books allegedly depicting “sexual conduct” raise serious First Amendment concerns. As a Supreme Court plurality explained in Board of Education v. Pico, students’ constitutional rights are “directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library,” as the First Amendment protects not only individual self-expression but the “right to receive information and ideas.” While local authorities have discretion to determine the content of their school libraries, “that discretion may not be exercised in a narrowly partisan or political manner.”

FIRE calls on Florida DOE to issue revised guidance that accurately reflects HB 1069. Specifically, it should clarify that the law: 

  • Does not absolutely ban material that “depicts or describes sexual conduct” from school and classroom libraries, 
  • Does not require libraries to proactively review material that “depicts or describes sexual conduct” in the absence of a formal objection, and 
  • Directs libraries to evaluate challenged materials on a case-by-case basis, following established and unbiased procedures, and only removing the books for those grades for which the materials are determined to be inappropriate.

Revised guidance from the department will help protect the First Amendment rights of all of Florida’s public school students. Books and literature, both classic and contemporary, are vital parts of a well-rounded education. 

Covers of the banned books “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl,” and “Looking for Alaska,”

Offering no explanation, Osceola County permanently removes multiple books from its school libraries


FIRE calls on the school district to stop flouting the First Amendment and its own policies.

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As FIRE has said before, public schools and district administrations have substantial discretion to decide what they place on library shelves. Public schools understandably place significant emphasis on age-appropriateness, literary merit, and potential contribution to pedagogical goals when evaluating library books. However, school officials must not make curation decisions based on hostility to certain ideas or viewpoints. 

And, as we’ve seen in Florida and other states like Iowa, categorical bans on specified subject matter — whether sex, violence, drug use, or any other potentially controversial topic — are a poor substitute for individualized, contextual evaluation of an individual book’s suitability for students. They inevitably have unforeseen consequences like excluding history books or classic novels that scores of American adults read when they were kids. 

These misguided policies frustrate students’ intellectual curiosity and pursuit of a high-quality education. Florida’s students deserve better.

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