In late April 2022, the White House named Nina Jankowicz—who believed in the Steele dossier and considered the Hunter Biden laptop story Russian disinformation—its disinformation czar. But the Department of Homeland Security Disinformation Governance Board that Jankowicz headed lasted only four months; Jankowicz herself resigned after just three weeks. A year later, it’s hard to ignore the irony that a White House that created an office allegedly to combat disinformation keeps trafficking in it to damage its political opponents.
President Biden and his press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, are spreading disinformation about Florida schools to discredit Governor Ron DeSantis. At a White House briefing on April 20, Jean-Pierre referred to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law as “the state’s dystopian Don’t Say Gay law.” There’s nothing “dystopian” about the legislation, which prevents K-12 teachers in the state from engaging in “classroom instruction” on “sexual orientation or gender identity” through third grade but doesn’t prevent teachers or students from saying the word “gay,” having conversations about being gay, or discussing gay people. She went on to state falsely that the law “prohibits all students, up to seniors in high school, from learning about or discussing LGBTQI+ people in the classrooms,” and added, “Under threat of having their licenses revoked, gay teachers have been forced to take down pictures of their spouses from their desks and censor their classroom materials.”
Last summer, various news outlets, including NBC, echoed the claims of a false, viral social media post claiming that teachers in Orange County, Florida, could no longer display photos of same-sex partners or wear rainbow colors and had to tell parents if a pupil said that he or she was gay. WTSP, the CBS affiliate in Tampa, performed a fact check on these claims and concluded that they were false. Regarding the photos of same-sex partners, the district clarified, “All teachers are encouraged to keep pictures of their families in the classroom.” Orlando Weekly and other publications, though no national ones, published similar corrections, which got far less traction than the original claims.
The Washington Post’s Glenn Kesler fact-checked Jean-Pierre’s rehash of the spurious 2022 claims and, though he acknowledged they were untrue, gave her only two Pinocchios, rather than the harshest rating of four. Kessler justified the lighter condemnation because the LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida connected him with a pair of gay Florida teachers with complaints about the law. One, a 22-year-old Tallahassee math teacher, claimed that the assistant principal told her in front of her third-grade students that a parent had complained because she had shown photos of her “lesbian friend” to students. The principal of the school disputes the claim. Kessler’s other source, a seventh-grade math teacher, alleges that he was investigated following a parental complaint after he told his students that gay men can adopt or have their own biological children. Neither teacher was disciplined.
Jean-Pierre frequently rails against mis- and disinformation. For example, on January 18, she said, “This administration has also emphasized the dangerous ways in which conspiracy theories and disinformation can lead some individuals to violence. We urge leaders in both parties to reject lies and conspiracies.”
But she and her boss appear to have no such concerns about mis- or disinformation when it comes to Florida. In his reelection campaign launch video, Biden featured images of DeSantis and, in not-so-subtle digs at Florida, said that “MAGA extremists” are “banning books” and “telling people who they can love.” The reality, according to the governor’s office, is that some 175 books deemed inappropriate for children have been removed from Florida school libraries following challenges from parents. These titles include Gender Queer, a graphic novel that includes explicit language and imagery, including depictions of one teen performing oral sex on another.
Nevertheless, Gender Queer and other “banned” books are widely available in the state, in public libraries, and at bookstores, so it’s deliberately misleading to say that Florida is “banning books.” Just as the Motion Picture Association of America isn’t “banning” or “censoring” movies that it rates R or X, Florida is not banning or censoring books when it stipulates that they be kept away from young children. And no law in Florida prevents anyone from loving whomever they want, despite efforts from the media to insinuate otherwise. It’s ridiculous for the White House to peddle the untruth that Florida schools are bastions of intolerance just to score political points.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images