A Ron DeSantis-backed law tightening restrictions on books in school libraries and classrooms is having a major impact in one Florida county. Orange County Public Schools have at least temporarily rejected a staggeringly long list of books as media specialists seek to remove any books that censorship-happy parents might decide to challenge once the school year starts.
The law in question requires that books where sexual content is a concern are to be removed from shelves while they are inspected. Books are not supposed to be banned for sexual content, according to the letter of the law, unless they are “without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” But that’s obviously not how it’s playing out, and it’s clear that the way things are going is the way the Republicans who put the policy in place intended.
The books on the temporarily rejected list include “A Room With a View,” “Madame Bovary,” “Paradise Lost,” “Into the Wild,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Catch-22,” “Brave New World,” and more. They include books that have been part of the official school curriculum.
There is hope for works that are temporarily on the rejected list while educators consider them: William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was initially rejected, then approved for grades 10 through 12 only, a status it shares with three other Shakespeare plays, the Tennessee Williams classic “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
Guidance from the state told educators to “err on the side of caution” on making decisions about books, and that’s what Orange County Public Schools are doing—erring on the side of caution in an environment in which right-wing groups like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education have flagged literally thousands of books as “concerning.” Orange County’s own guidance to the media specialists reviewing the books warned, “You are tasked with protecting your colleagues, yourself, and OCPS to ensure content being made available to students is in compliance with Florida Statutes.”
In debating the law, one Republican state senator directly conflated pornography and anything with sexual content, saying, “There are materials that are pornographic. There are materials that depict sexual activity.” He added, “School districts should be held accountable for that.” And the fear of being “held accountable” under the new laws is driving the removal of scores of books with well-established literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
Again and again, this is what Republicans do. They pass broad, vague bans on things intended to instill fear beyond the letter of the law. This gives them plausible deniability on outrageous outcomes if they want it—“hey, we didn’t say to ban Shakespeare”—but it makes those outcomes more likely by making the rank and file workers tasked with making thousands of decisions about content fear for their jobs.
This is a state where a 1998 Disney movie about Ruby Bridges was removed from schools in one county because a parent complained that it might make kids learn that white people hate Black people. A textbook company removed mentions of race from the Rosa Parks story after looking at the books being banned in Florida, including dozens of math textbooks. The College Board backed down in response to DeSantis’ demands on an Advanced Placement African American Studies class only to have his administration call for changes to AP Psychology too. Educators have every reason to believe that Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans will target them.
This process bears a striking similarity to some of the effects of Republican abortion bans. They write sweeping bans with vague exceptions, leading doctors and hospital administrators to fear the consequences of providing medical care to women having miscarriages or pregnancy complications that threaten their health and ultimately their lives. Most of the Republicans who pass these bans would say that of course if a woman’s life is threatened, the vague “life of the mother” exceptions included in the bans apply, but in practice the laws scare doctors so much that they only feel safe invoking those exceptions if the woman’s life is in danger in the next couple of hours. If it’s days, women are routinely sent home to wait until they’re sick enough.
Republicans are passing one punitive, restrictive law after another, targeting health care, education, and more. We’re seeing the results, and make no mistake, this is the world they want to build: A world where “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is off limits for younger teens and “Paradise Lost” may be banned. A world where laws are put in place that directly imply that, as one Orange County teacher told the Orlando Sentinel, “I have horrible intentions for my students.” A world where doctors are afraid to give appropriate medical care to women with pregnancy complications until they are on the brink of death. The intent is the government forcing workers to live in fear of someone getting mad about the professional decisions they make. It’s already in action in states like Florida, and it’s what Republicans want to do to the entire United States.