Freedom to Read Fight Continues as Florida Library Media Specialists Face Summer of Fear and Unknowns

School librarians await the interpretation of three new laws that will impact what and how they teach as Florida Freedom to Read Project founders fight for books to stay on the shelves.

For library media specialists in Florida, it is a summer break of confusion and fear. Blame it on the 7s.

Florida House Bills 7, 1467, and 1557 will become law on July 1 and impact what and how students are taught in the state. But the legislation is vague, and individual counties and districts must provide information on the specific ways their schools must implement them. So far, few districts have offered clarification, so library media specialists wait for instruction and wonder and worry about their collections and students.

“They left school hoping for interpretation,” says Florida Association for Media Education president Michelle Jarrett. “They haven’t gotten that, so they’re going to come back to school in the same place they left—and they left scared.”

For Jarrett, who is also a county library supervisor overseeing 50 media specialists, the biggest worry right now is not that the laws will force librarians to pull books out of their collections before the next school year begins, but that they will start self-censoring out of fear.

“This is their retirement,” says Jarrett. “It’s their teaching license. Now they’re terrified anything they purchase could [cost them] their future. I’m afraid it’s going to end up causing a lot of self-censoring.”

It brings Jarrett to tears, she says, worrying that media specialists will seek to spare themselves complaints, controversy, or serious professional ramifications and interpret the laws in the most conservative ways. The books kids need will not get to them, says Jarrett, the stories that provide mirrors and windows for the LGBTQIA+ and Black community will no longer be in libraries. It would have a ripple effect for years to come.

Community support is very important right now and school librarians have it from Florida Freedom to Read Project (FFTRP), an organization started by Orange County (FL) moms Jen Cousins and Stephana Ferrell. Cousins and Ferrell created the nonprofit after someone read an excerpt from Gender Queer and the district decided to remove it without following its policy. Cousins has four children, from elementary school through high school, including a 12-year-old who is non-binary and read Gender Queer.

“It was very life-affirming for them,” says Cousins.

Farrell has two biracial children in elementary school and is concerned about banning attempts that would remove stories by and about people of color.

"I just want everyone to feel great at school and have a safe environment to learn in," says Ferrell. 

Florida Freedom to Read Project founders Stephana Ferrell and Jen Cousins.

Since launching the organization in January, the two have rallied supporters, attended school board meetings to speak out against book bans, and filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in an effort to expose which districts were acting against their policies and what was happening without public knowledge.

One such FOIA request revealed that in Orange County, an investigator normally charged with looking into “alleged misconduct by educators” was put on the case to find out which library media specialists were responsible for purchasing Gender Queer. The Orlando Sentinel ran a story on the revelation, which has resulted in  widespread fear among library media specialists in the state.

The official Orange County investigation was not the only thing FFTRP has uncovered with a FOIA request. Acting on a tip, they pursued documents related to Pinellas County Schools and learned that the district pulled Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Peña and Ambitious Girl by Meena Harris from its curriculum after community members were causing a “ruckus” about them.

Many, if not most, Florida library media specialists are afraid to speak publicly right now. Some have told Cousins and Ferrell that they were willing to speak publicly, only to change their minds at the last minute.

“When push comes to shove, they were like ‘Well, if I put my name on it, I put myself at a huge risk,’ and so then they back away,” says Cousins.

Pushing for this information and the right of intellectual freedom is not without cost for Cousins and Ferrell. They have been screamed at, called pedophiles and groomers, and forced to leave school board meetings as a group instead of individually for their own protection. Seeing what has happened at school board meetings and the potential for personal attacks keeps some people from coming out and speaking up, they say. But it’s important, and not just in Florida.

Jarrett agrees, “Lots of things start in Florida and Texas, but they migrate across the country.”

It’s exhausting and can be frightening, but librarians and defenders of the freedom must continue to make their voices heard, Jarrett maintains.

“We are tired, but it’s not over, and we’re not going to quit,” she says.

Jarrett hopes that Florida media specialists return to school in August with the energy and commitment needed for the fight.

“I’m really hoping that that people feel renewed and ready,” she says. “There’s still a lot of work to do, and that work is important.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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