Banning The Dictionary Could Be The Last Straw

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  • Barrington Salmon Florida Phoenix
Book banning

According to PEN America, a free-speech advocacy group, one Florida school district has banned more than 1,600 books. In a particularly absurd move, school administrators in Escambia County have even banned the dictionary.

(Getty Images via Florida Phoenix)

If a governor, state representative or school district resorts to banning books, they have already lost the fight between competing ideas.

But that hasn’t stopped Gov. Ron DeSantis and an army of overzealous crusaders across Florida from ratcheting up their war against books, education and social justice (shhh, no one is supposed to know about that last one.)

They’ll tell you that the campaign is an attempt to protect (their) children from books they deem “pornographic, harmful to minors or that depict sexual activity.”

The laws implemented by Florida’s Republican legislative supermajority say that books under contention must be pulled from shelves within five days of a complaint and remain out of circulation for the duration of any challenge.

According to PEN America, a free-speech advocacy group, one Florida school district has banned more than 1,600 books. Things have gotten so ridiculous that in Escambia County, school administrators have banned the dictionary.

“Five dictionaries are on the district’s list of more than 1,600 books banned pending investigation in December 2023, along with eight different encyclopedias, The Guinness Book of World Records, and Ripley’s Believe it or Not – all due to fears they violate the state’s new laws banning materials with ‘sexual conduct’ from schools,” PEN America said in a web posting, citing the Florida Freedom to Read Project.

Also on the Florida Freedom to Read’s list are Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl,” “The Adventures and the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes,” and “The Princess Diaries” and 14 other books by young adult author Meg Cabot. Florida native Carl Hiaasen made the list, too, as did two of conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly’s books, “Killing Jesus” and “Killing Reagan.”

Other books that have been snatched off shelves, the Florida Freedom to Read Project says, include biographies of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Oprah Winfrey and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, plus “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Black Panther comics by journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates and “The Teen Vogue Handbook: An Insider’s Guide to Careers in Fashion” were also pulled.

In response, PEN America, Penguin Random House and a number of authors, parents and students in Escambia County filed a federal legal challenge citing the First and Fourteenth amendments.

The plaintiffs asked the judge to restore children’s access to books about gay and trans people and others that detail aspects of race and racism.

During a hearing in late January, U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell II rejected the school district’s motion to dismiss the case. In his decision, Wetherell said the plaintiffs could pursue their claims under First Amendment protections, since the books were pulled based on “ideological objections to [the books’] content or disagreement with their messages or themes, rather than for pedagogical reasons.”

Strangely enough, despite having orchestrated the book bans and resulting chaos, DeSantis has said several times lately that “book bans are a hoax,” and repeated that at a Feb. 15 press conference. During his comments, the governor appeared to endorse legislation that would penalize frivolous schoolbook challenges.

That bill, Florida Phoenix’s Michael Moline said, would impose a $100 “processing fee” on subsequent challenges filed by anyone who’s already filed five unmerited challenges in a district where he or she doesn’t have a child enrolled. The money would be refundable if the complaint pans out.

And despite his fingerprints all over this issue, DeSantis blames confusion over book content on teachers, media and activists – everyone but himself. DeSantis’ critics wouldn’t allow him to slip away from culpability. This includes Katie Blankenship, director of PEN America’s Florida office, who stated:

“Governor DeSantis’ denial that Florida is banning books, and his shifting blame to local school boards and Floridians, is a blatant attempt to avoid responsibility for the significant and ongoing harm caused by statutes that he championed. But there is one thing we can agree on: book banning has gone too far.”

What PEN and the wide assortment of groups engaged in similar efforts are doing is critical in our fight against suppression of free speech, racism, and the unvarnished expressions of racism and erasure of Black history.

Barrington Salmon

Barrington Salmon

(Florida Phoenix)

A 2021 opinion piece that appeared in The Hechinger Report cuts to the chase about what’s really at issue. DeSantis, his far-right cronies and like-minded parents, advocates and lobbyists are fighting to control “whether and to what extent racism is embedded in American history and institutions, how racism should be acknowledged and combatted, and who bears responsibility for ongoing racial discrimination and injustice.”

These people want to turn back the clock, kill truth and leverage the state’s educational infrastructure to reflect their misguided ideological perspectives by eliminating the stories that students connect with while disconnecting them from the love of reading.

Barrington Salmon is a journalist who lived and wrote in Miami and Tallahassee, Fla., for nearly 20 years. He is currently a freelance writer for the National Newspaper Publishers Association/Black Press USA, the Trice Edney Newswire and The Washington Informer, among others.