New Florida Law Should Have Advocates of Intellectual Freedom Watching Closely
By: guest blogger Amanda Ziegler
On July 1, 2017, Gov. Rick Scott (R) of Florida signed into law House Bill 989, which revised district school board responsibilities related to reviewing and adopting public K-12 instructional materials. This new law institutes a policy whereby any resident of the state of Florida (meaning a person who has had residence or “established domicile” in Florida for the previous year) can challenge materials used in K-12 public classrooms in Florida — a marked change from previous law, which only allowed parents of students in a particular district to challenge instructional material. The law also expands the definition of “instructional materials” that school boards are responsible for the content of to include “any other materials used in the classroom, made available in a school library, or included on a reading list” – essentially any material that is purchased or made available in any way in K-12 public schools.
In addition to changing what can be challenged and by who, the law changes the structure of the challenges, as well. It requires each district school board to maintain on its website a current list of instructional materials, by grade level. The process for hearings on challenged materials is drastically different; the hearing officer is now required to be someone who is not an employee or agent of the school district responding to the challenge. The law also exempts these hearings from the usual process of public notification and advertising of public meetings in the state of Florida. The process must also explicitly guarantee that those who file the challenge be allowed to proffer evidence that the material is either “pornographic” or “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.”
This law opens the door to challenges in a way that previous laws in Florida have not, by vastly expanding the materials that are susceptible to challenge and allowing challenges by community members who do not have a student in the schools. As Carl Ramey, an opinion writer for the Gainesville Sun, put it, “A limited, parent-centric complaint procedure has been turned into an open-ended, highly accessible platform for sectarian pressure groups — more interested in advancing a particular belief than how certain material might impact a particular child. It opens up the possibility of coordinated campaigns by groups seeking to ban material deemed objectionable on religious or political grounds (such as evolution and global warming).”
According to the law, material must be “accurate, objective, balanced, noninflammatory, current, free of pornography…and suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend.” An organization that has publicly taken credit for writing the bill and recruiting sponsors for it, The Florida Citizens’ Alliance, has drawn criticism from local science education activists for repeatedly stating that their objective is to ensure “balance in school instruction” with regards to evolution and creationism, as well as various arguments about climate change.
The most troubling change, however, may be the inclusion of language allowing for challenges on the grounds of materials that are “not suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented.” Which topics are suited to student needs are now up for debate by any interest group that cares to challenge the decisions of professional educators, which is especially troubling considering some of the recent furor over whether content discussing minority groups (such as transgender people) in age-appropriate books is something that children are able to comprehend.
An example of a challenge based on this type of argument culminated just this week in a school board in Rocklin, CA, voting unanimously to retain the policies that allowed for the reading of the picture book I am Jazz in a kindergarten classroom last year as a tool for discussing the transition of one of the students in the class. However, the school board in that case had clear protections for their decisions under California law. As Florida moves forward in this new legal environment, and as other states investigate adopting similar laws, librarians, educators and other proponents of intellectual freedom need to keep a close eye on challenges to ensure that they do not become a vehicle for censorship.
Amanda Ziegler is the Professional Studies and Online outreach librarian at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, FL. Her duties include serving education students and faculty, which was how she became interested in the effects of HB 989, but her past life as a public librarian dealing with challenges to books from the local community sparked her interest in intellectual freedom early on in her career. Amanda can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org