Critics allege conservative slant as Florida book panel ends its work

Factions spar when a final in-person meeting is rescheduled at a time when only Moms for Liberty members can attend.
The Florida Department of Education library work group is drafting guidelines for school librarians to select books and other materials by a Jan. 1, 2023, deadline. It has met primarily online, as was the case in this session on Dec. 6, 2022.
The Florida Department of Education library work group is drafting guidelines for school librarians to select books and other materials by a Jan. 1, 2023, deadline. It has met primarily online, as was the case in this session on Dec. 6, 2022. [ Florida Department of Education ]
Published Dec. 14, 2022|Updated Dec. 15, 2022

A state panel charged with writing new guidelines for school librarians to follow when selecting books and other materials was supposed to meet virtually on Tuesday to finish up its recommendations.

Instead, state library media director Amber Baumbach, the Florida Department of Education official overseeing the effort, canceled the session. Baumbach rescheduled it as an in-person gathering next Monday in Tallahassee, over the objections of the majority of members, who said they could not make it.

Even Baumbach said she could not attend because of nonrefundable travel plans. The only two members who appear likely to make the trip are parents associated with Moms for Liberty, the conservative organization that has pressed for restrictive rules on what books are allowed in schools and who can access them.

No virtual access to the meeting has been included.

That has some critics of efforts to remove books from classroom and library shelves crying foul.

“To me, it feels like they’re really being very accommodating to a certain group, which doesn’t surprise me given the politics,” said Julie Dashiell, a St. Johns County mom of four who also sits on the work group.

Related: Tensions simmer as conservative moms, Florida educators differ on school books

Dashiell said the group largely has been respectful of one another while working toward a training model that sets forth how school districts should follow new state laws on book selection without losing their autonomy. In late November it became clear, though, that some parent members were not satisfied and did not seem ready to compromise, she said.

She referred to members Jennifer Pippin, president of the Moms for Liberty Indian River County chapter, and Michelle Beavers, a Brevard County Moms for Liberty organizer. Both have worked to have dozens of titles removed from their school districts, contending they contain pornography or other inappropriate content.

“I think they were hoping this training would be much more prescriptive in terms of what districts have to do,” said Dashiell, who added that she is representing other parents’ perspective. “Those are loud voices, but they aren’t the only voices.”

By setting a meeting where Pippin and Beavers can dominate the discussion, the process appears “rigged from the get-go,” said Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which opposes efforts to remove books from schools without a thorough public review.

Just because a book lands on a list of objections from a group like Moms for Liberty or the Florida Citizens Alliance does not necessarily make it obscene, pornographic or nonliterary, Ferrell said. The alliance is another organization angling to remove materials based on keywords and create opt-in access models.

Ferrell’s group sent out an alert to supporters soon after learning about the meeting change, urging them to pressure department officials to stop any “strong-arming our local districts into censorship.”

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Beavers, who heads the Brevard County Moms for Liberty library book committee, had a different take on the change of venue.

“I think it was designed to shut off the support that people were showing for me,” she said, noting that at the group’s most recent virtual meeting, her efforts got more backing from the public than at any other time. That could have continued with another online session, she said.

She acknowledged she was only speculating, adding that her critics are guessing, too.

Department spokesperson Cassie Palelis did not say why the meeting was changed when asked for details. She said via email that the department was following legislation that called for librarian training, and added that all the meetings meet the requirements of Florida’s open meetings law.

Pippin, who once asked the Indian River County sheriff to prosecute school district officials who did not remove books she alleged were inappropriate, said she did not ask the Department of Education to change its meeting. She did not object to it, though, saying members would be able to spend more time working than a virtual session allows.

And work remains, she said, because while the group has agreed on a majority of issues, it has not come up with definitions for “pornography,” “obscenity” or “serious literary value.” Those terms appear in the law that districts are supposed to follow when selecting materials.

“This is the problem we’re running into. We can’t get guidance from the state lawyers,” Pippin said. ”We don’t want these books to slip through the cracks any more.”

So there’s no point in sending a memo to schools simply saying “follow the law” without guidance on those key points, Beavers said. “I believe they’re doing their best to follow the law. The problem is, it’s open to interpretation.”

Pippin expected to keep pushing for clarity in the training, over which the department has final say.

Neither woman considered their effort to get books removed from schools akin to a ban, saying the materials are still available elsewhere if parents wish to share them with their own children.

“I think parental rights is huge,” Pippin said. “If a parent wants their child to read it, that’s absolutely their right. But it’s illegal to have it in schools.”

Dashiell took issue with that view. She said she, too, supports parental rights, but “they stop at your own child.”

While no one is wanting pornography in schools, she said, it’s not accurate to equate sex with pornography. And, she added, it’s not the work group’s job to write definitions, either. Rather, the law assigned the group to create guidance for librarians, and for all schools to rely on those librarians to use their professional judgment in selecting appropriate books.

“I think we should give this law the time to work,” she said.

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