Orange Schools Take Book Censorship to ‘The Most Extreme Position’

Imagine you are blindfolded, about to see one of the most incredible panoramas in the world. Knowing that the edge is in front of you, you are instructed to keep the blindfold on and walk towards it with no indication as to when you have reached it.

Will you hesitate for fear of going too far? What if we told you that you can safely take five steps to get to the right position? Would you like to move forward with confidence?

That’s basically what’s happening in Orange County.

On March 8, during the final debate on HB1557, the Parental Rights in Education Act, Senator Danny Burgess challenged an accusation that the bill’s vagueness would limit LGBTQ+ rights.

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

Of course, he hinted, they didn’t want to specifically target LGBTQ+ people with this law, also dubbed “don’t say gay” by its critics. This was strictly about moving the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity to a more appropriate school level – whatever that is.

But, the lack of guidance in the law guaranteed this result. By leaving new education laws undefined, while providing penalties for violations, Republican lawmakers ensured that conservative interpretations would be the norm, even in progressive counties. The ramifications of going too far are tantamount to taking that leap: financially onerous lawsuits, revoked certifications, angry crowds at board meetings.

The responses from the Orange County Public Schools Assistant Advocate and the guidance provided by the legal team during the “Camp Legal” training left me extremely concerned about my children’s public education.

On July 12, a proposal was made to add to OCPS policy this definition of pornography: “Any depiction (written or graphic account) of anyone engaging in ‘sexual conduct’ as that term is defined at section 847.001(16)”. It was written that 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 examined and considered in its entirety, using the filter of the community where the material is available, to determine whether or not its value exceeds that of the mere intention to inspire. This definition is why OCPS library policy currently requires a media objection review committee. With this update, however, anything the Superintendent considers “pornography” could be immediately removed without review.

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As many members pointed out in response to this proposal, using such a broad definition of “pornography” could have a negative impact on the class. What will happen to AP literature that contains sexual conduct? How to teach human reproduction? What about famous poetry, historical films, and classic art that depict sex and contain nudity? The answer given by the assistant attorney was: “I don’t think that will apply to the classics.”

This came moments after board chair Teresa Jacobs declared Maia Kobabe’s book “Gender Queer” an example of “pornography” under their definition. Never mind that the intention of the work is not to arouse; illustrations that depict sexual conduct are intended to show the asexual author’s discomfort with conventional sexual acts. The book also teaches the reader how to set boundaries in healthy relationships.

If this book could be called “pornography”, then one would expect “Romeo and Juliet” to meet the same fate. But, as the assistant attorney said, that book would be safe, along with the Bible, the AP required reading, and the health course. Why? Because these materials are required to meet state standards described in more descriptive laws.

Thus, while the definition that the OCPS wants to use is not on its face discriminatory, the voices that this definition will inevitably silence in elected reading will overwhelmingly come from those who are not prescribed to students under Florida law. These are newer voices, and LGBTQ+ voices in particular.

It is clear that in the future, the objective of the district legal counsel is to avoid disputes and accusations altogether. They seem to think that these controversies can be avoided if they simply reduce the universe of available books, regardless of students’ constitutional rights to read.

This is indeed pushing things to the most “extreme” position. Mass banning books to include LGBTQ+ identities is extreme. Burgess’ caution unfortunately comes true.

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

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