We really shouldn’t be surprised that just two people — a transplanted New Yorker and an Escambia County English teacher — are responsible for almost half of the book banning attempts made in Florida schools over the last year.
The two culture warriors submitted about 600 of the 1,100 book challenges made since July 2022, according to a recent Tampa Bay Times investigation, wasting untold hours of school employee time and the taxpayer dollars that pay for it. They are part of a small group of Republican-backed scolds who are making Florida school officials afraid to do their job, which is to educate students, not placate zealots.
They are doing exactly what the Republican officials leading this state want them to do. It would be comical if it wasn’t so damaging.
Last year, at the behest of Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature passed laws restricting public school lessons about race and racism and gender and sexual identity. Lawmakers required school officials to remove any content deemed inappropriate or harmful to minors, and encouraged parents to file complaints, which often triggered immediate removal of the material.
The Times investigation shows it’s not at all clear if the people making the complaints actually read the books they said should be tossed out. Consider Bruce Friedman and Vicki Baggett, the two people who filed almost half of the challenges in the state during the last 12 months. Friedman, a 57-year-old former New Yorker who now lives in Clay County, is responsible for more than 400 complaints. Many of his challenges provide little more explanation than “Protect Children!’’ and “Damaged Souls!’’ Some appear to be photocopies with only the titles and authors changed.
Baggett, a high school teacher in Escambia, filed 178 complaints, or about 80% of those submitted in the conservative panhandle county. On each form she said she had read the material in its entirety, but the Times found the language in many of the complaints appear to be pulled from a website launched by a member of Moms for Liberty, a group at the forefront of the movement to ban books.
Neither Baggett nor Friedman answered the Times request for interviews. Friedman has told Fox News he started his crusades after his teenage son suffered “considerable harm’' while attending New York’s public schools. He went on to found the Florida chapter of No Left Turn in Education, which opposes “progressive indoctrination.’’ He learned about the group while watching Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News.
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The Times investigation shows quite clearly how a tiny number of activists can effectively overwhelm a school district, especially when enabled by state leaders.
“We have probably spent more resources on (Friedman) than anyone else in the history of the school district,’’ said Roger Dailey, Clay County’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
The report also shows that the vast majority of parents aren’t using book challenges to perpetuate DeSantis’ floundering culture wars. This isn’t a mass movement. Parents aren’t showing up in big numbers to censor books.
But his administration’s pretense that they are only empowering parents — when the vast majority are indicating they neither want nor need this power — is still having a chilling effect on teachers and school districts, who are wary of crossing a vindictive state government. In Jefferson County, for example, all school media are closed until the district can inventory its entire catalog. Santa Rosa County quarantined every book that received a complaint.
The saddest aspect of all this is there already is a mechanism to handle complaints about books and other curriculum material. It’s called an opt-out, which allows parents to say they don’t want their child exposed to specific content, but has no impact on other students. Most schools and teachers already routinely inform parents about materials to be used, and offer quality alternatives.
That’s a much better way to empower parents than allowing a few zealots to decide what every student should read.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.