Florida School Districts Tussle with New Book-Challenge Law, Shakespeare’s Works at Risk

Florida’s school districts are grappling with a recently implemented book-challenge law, raising critical questions about academic freedom and potential censorship of classic literature, including works by the celebrated playwright William Shakespeare. The new law mandates discontinuing materials containing “sexual conduct” deemed unsuitable for specific grade levels.

Disruption of Established Book Selection Processes

Under the legislation, signed into effect by Gov. Ron DeSantis on July 1, schools are discarding time-tested methods for selecting instructional materials. Until now, the Miller Test, a method based on Supreme Court rulings to ascertain if the content was obscene, guided these decisions. Kathleen Malloy, a school media specialist in Leon County, noted the drastic shift, stating, “Even Shakespeare is suspect.” This legislation implies a potential risk to numerous necessary resources for advanced literature exams and dual-enrollment classes, even if such books’ overall content is “very valuable as a piece of literature,” with only a few instances that could be classified under the “sexual conduct” category.

Interpreting the Law: Prudence or Overly Cautious?

Districts are awaiting direction from the Florida Department of Education on navigating this new law. Some have halted their review processes pending the state’s guidance, including Brevard and Hillsborough. Many districts and committees are erring on the side of caution, a move recommended by the state Department of Education, resulting in a conservative interpretation of the law. Nonetheless, this approach has been met with criticism. Stephana Ferrell, co-founder and director of research and insight for the Florida Freedom to Read Project, argued, “It is overly cautious.”

Heightened Challenges and Implications

The new law introduces another layer of complexity. Parents unsatisfied with a school board’s verdict on a book challenge can now seek a special magistrate’s review, potentially exerting additional pressure on districts. Additionally, school districts are obliged to remove any challenged book involving pornography or “sexual conduct” within five days, pending complaint resolution.

• In Brevard County, the district’s book review committee voted to remove three texts by poet Rupi Kaur due to sexual content.

• In Orange County Public Schools, Shakespeare plays are approved for only grades 10 through 12, and books such as “The Color Purple,” “Catch-22,” “Brave New World,” and “The Kite Runner” are on the temporary rejection list.

Defining “Sexual Conduct”

The state’s broad definition of “sexual conduct” includes actual or simulated intercourse, exhibition of or physical contact with genitalia, or any depiction of “sexual battery.” This broad interpretation has generated concerns regarding its implementation and potential limitations on discussing relationships, sexuality, and diversity in literature.

The Future of Book Selection in Florida Schools

The Department of Education’s impending guidance is eagerly awaited by districts seeking clarity on the law’s practical application. Critics warn of unintentional censorship, limited exposure to diverse perspectives, and potential hindrance to students’ intellectual and personal development as potential side effects of the new law. As the debate over the new book-challenge law continues, the delicate balance between safeguarding students and preserving academic freedom is in focus. The fate of Shakespeare’s works and countless other literary works hangs in the balance. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, currently vying for the Republican nomination for U.S. president, maintains that the idea of widespread book bans in Florida is a “hoax.” Yet, the reality in Florida’s schools tells a different story, a story that continues to unfold.

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