Ron DeSantis’s “Book Ban Hoax” press conference, held last week in Tampa, which I attended, was the Florida governor’s attempt to correct a persistent but misleading narrative. Inside a small auditorium at the state attorney’s office, one of his handlers took to the stage with an announcement. “Before we begin, we’re going to show you a video with sexually explicit content,” she said. “Any children here should please leave the room now.” The room was uncomfortably quiet as reporters and invited guests fidgeted with their phones, wondering what they were about to witness.
After an eerie 30-second countdown, the video began with clips from mainstream press coverage—MSNBC and Washington Post reporters criticizing DeSantis for his alleged attacks on free speech, stories announcing empty bookshelves in Sunshine State schools, and grave warnings about bans on books about baseball stars Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente. Then came images from the real target of recent Florida legislation: objectionable books that have been found in the state’s public schools. One such volume, Let’s Talk About It, features a kid’s guide to sending sexually explicit text messages and graphic instructions on novel masturbation techniques. Local TV cut their feed when the video aired, effectively proving the governor’s point: the books contain inappropriate content.
The controversies about empty bookshelves and allegedly banned baseball biographies were promoted by seemingly reputable sources, such as PEN America, a century-old nonprofit established to promote literature and free expression, and Nancy Armour, a USA Today sports columnist with a peculiar interest in progressive cultural memes. In a February column, Armour spotlighted the baseball-book story, writing that “DeSantis and right-wing activists” want to “prevent kids from learning anything that doesn’t fit neatly into a white, heteronormative world view.” She cited a damning claim from PEN that “books are under profound attack” from Republicans, as well as a viral clip that’s garnered nearly 6 million views on Twitter of empty bookshelves in a Florida classroom.
The reality is otherwise. According to the governor’s office, 23 school districts in Florida have removed a total of 175 books, mostly from school media centers. Eighty-seven percent were identified by the state as “pornographic, violent or inappropriate for their grade level.” Meantime, according to the Duval County school district, which had allegedly memory-holed Clemente and Aaron, those books were included in a cluster of 27 titles on temporary hold while officials awaited “state guidance to determine the appropriate grade levels and placement (classroom library or media center).” Nobody had complained about them, and by February 13, all 27 were approved for designated grade levels. Finally, regarding the viral clip of empty bookshelves, the district wrote that it did “direct teachers to temporarily reduce their classroom library collections to titles that were previously approved while waiting for media specialists to curate a more expansive list of approved titles,” but that “a small number of principals interpreted directions and guidance more intensely, out of an abundance of caution.” No school bookshelf should have been empty, in other words, and it was a tremendous leap to imagine that DeSantis was concerned about children in just one Florida county reading a couple of baseball biographies. (Despite the statement from Duval County schools, Armour says she still stands by her reporting.)
Breathless but false claims of banned books in Florida aren’t new. Randi Weingarten, president of the country’s largest teachers’ union, retweeted last year a bogus list of books supposedly banned in Florida that included To Kill a Mockingbird, which the state officially recommends to schools. In December, the New York Times weekly Books Briefing email contained the alarming subject line, “Inside Book Banning Efforts.” Esquire declares that “Ronald DeSantis Is Leading Florida to Freedom, One Ban at a Time.” The Nation: “Ron DeSantis Is Lying About Why Bookshelves in Florida Classrooms Are Empty” (a claim that DeSantis is lying about something that isn’t true to begin with). Salon: “Sorry, Twitter, but Florida’s war on books is no joke. Ron DeSantis wants to keep kids from reading.” Salon claimed that teachers in Manatee County, just south of where I live, were instructed to “lock up all their books until they could be ‘vetted’ by censors” or risk “being prosecuted as felons.” The author, Amanda Marcotte, bluntly leads her piece with the absurd conclusion that DeSantis would “prefer it if kids didn’t read books at all.”
The debate over books illustrates competing visions on nurturing. One side believes in the primacy of public institutions in influencing young minds, while the other prioritizes the rights of parents to determine what their children are exposed to, at home and via their elected representatives. The effort to portray DeSantis as a tyrannical book-banning reactionary didn’t resonate with Florida voters, who gave him a 19-point win last November. We Floridians can still buy any book we want, whether or not inappropriate titles are removed from school libraries. If Americans outside the Sunshine State have a chance to weigh in on the debate over children’s access to books, expect them to come down on the same side.
Photo by Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post via Getty Images