Orange schools take book censorship to ‘most extreme position’

Imagine you are blindfolded and about to see one of the most amazing vistas in the world. Knowing that the edge is in front of you, you are asked to put on the blindfold and walk towards it without any indication of when you have reached it.

Will you hesitate for fear of going too far? What if you were told that you can safely take five steps to reach the correct position? Would you step forward with confidence?

That is essentially what is happening in Orange County.

On March 8, during the closing debate on HB1557, the Parental Rights in Education Act, Senator Danny Burgess disputed an allegation that the bill’s vagueness would restrict LGBTQ+ rights.

“Don’t take this argument to the most extreme position,” he said.

Of course, he suggested, they didn’t want to specifically target LGBTQ+ people with this law, which critics have also called “don’t say gay.” It was purely about moving instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity to a more appropriate level – whatever that may be.

But the lack of guidance in the law has guaranteed that result. By leaving the new education laws undefined, while also including penalties for violating them, Republican lawmakers ensured that conservative interpretations would be the norm — even in progressive counties. The consequences of going too far are tantamount to going over that edge: financially heavy lawsuits, revoked certifications, angry crowds at board meetings.

The responses from the Orange County Public Schools Deputy Counsel and the reported guidance from the legal team during “Camp Legal” training have left me incredibly concerned about my children’s public education.

On July 12, a proposal was made to add to OCPS policy this definition of pornography: “Any image (written story or image) of a person engaging in ‘sexual conduct’ as that term is defined in Section 847.001 ( 16).” It is written this way because there is no legal definition in the law. What is defined in the law is ‘harmful to minors’.

It states that a creative work must be assessed and considered in its entirety, using the filter of the community where the material is available, to determine whether its value exceeds that of the sole intent to generate. This definition is why OCPS library policy currently requires a media objection review committee. However, with this update, anything the Chief Inspector determines as “pornography” can be removed immediately without review.

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As many members noted in response to this proposal, using such a broad definition of “pornography” could have a negative impact on the classroom. What should become of AP literature that includes sexual behavior? How can we learn about human reproduction? What about famous poetry, historical films and classical art that depict sex and contain nudity? The deputy counsel’s response was, “I don’t think this will apply to the Classics.”

This happened moments after board chairman Teresa Jacobs declared Maia Kobabe’s book “Gender Queer” as an example of “pornography” by their definition. It doesn’t matter that the intent of the work is not to excite; the illustrations depicting sexual behavior are intended to show the asexual author’s discomfort with conventional sexual acts. The book also teaches the reader about setting boundaries in healthy relationships.

If this book qualified as “pornography”, you would expect that “Romeo and Juliet” would suffer the same fate. But, as deputy counsel stated, that book would be safe, along with the Bible, AP required reading, and health class. Why? Because these materials are necessary to meet state standards set forth in more descriptive statutes.

So while the definition OCPS intends to use is not discriminatory on the face of it, the voices that this definition inevitably silences in selected reading will come overwhelmingly from those not prescribed to students under Florida law. Those are newer voices, especially LGBTQ+ voices.

Obviously, the district attorney’s goal in the future is to avoid challenges and accusations altogether. They seem to reason that these controversies can be avoided if they simply narrow the universe of available books, without worrying about students’ constitutional right to read.

This is indeed taking things to the most “extreme” position. The massive ban on books for recording LGBTQ+ identities is extreme. Burgess’ warning unfortunately comes true.

Stephana Ferrell is co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read project.

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