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New Florida Law Makes Censoring School Materials Easier

A just-signed bill adds a school board position for receiving challenges to learning materials

A new Florida law allows any citizen to challenge the validity of learning materials given to children. The law adds a new layer of oversight with an additional school board position to field citizen complaints about movies, textbooks, or novels used in public schools, which many worry could turn into an attack against climate change or the teaching of evolutionary theory.

The bill signed into law by Governor Rick Scott creates a hearing officer position on school boards who will review citizen complaints regarding learning materials. The basis for those complaints are pretty broad and allow accusations of pornography as well as any material deemed “… not suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented …” Based on the hearing officer’s judgment of the validity of the complaint, they can then require the school to remove the challenged material. The bill does note that the hearing officer must be “unbiased.”

Science education advocates are particularly concerned about the vagueness of what could be considered unsuitable for a kid’s ability to understand the material. They point out that affidavits from the bill’s supporters have been very clear to show they plan to use the bill to attack materials related to evolution and climate change.

teacher and students in elementary school

The Florida bill is not the only push to censor learning materials in public schools. Textbooks have long been a target for groups in Texas wishing to minimize information on climate change and evolution. The Texas scuffle over science presented in textbooks often has national repercussions. The Lone Star State has a single body that decides on the purchasing of textbooks for all public schools in the state. The Texas market is large enough that often publishers will make changes to their books in order to remain competitive. But those changes are made in all textbooks, not just the ones going to Texas students.

But science textbooks aren’t the only materials being attacked by would-be censors. In 2016 the American Library Association (ALA) recorded 323 challenges to library books. Of the top ten, half were reported due to content related to the LBGTQ experience. The ALA suggests the challenges it recorded are simply a small sampling. They suggest a full 97 percent of challenges, most from parents and library patrons, go unreported.

The repercussions of the new Florida law remain to be seen. But watchdog groups are waiting to see what challenges might surface. Litigation is likely.