Orange schools taking book censorship to ‘the most extreme position’

Imagine you are blindfolded, about to see one of the most amazing vistas in the world. Knowing the edge is ahead of you, you are asked to keep the blindfold on and walk towards it without any guidance until when you’ve reached it.

Will you hesitate for fear you might go too far? What if you were told you could safely take five steps to get to the right position? Would you confidently step forward?

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

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

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

Of course, he implied, they didn’t mean to target LGBTQ+ people specifically with this law, also dubbed “don’t say gay” by its critics. It was strictly about moving the instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity to a more appropriate grade level — whatever that might be.

But, the lack of guidance in the law has guaranteed that result. By leaving the new education laws undefined, while also including penalties for breaking them, Republican legislators have ensured conservative interpretations would be the standard — even in progressive counties. The ramifications of going a step too far are equivalent to stepping over that edge: financially burdensome lawsuits, certifications revoked, angry mobs at board meetings.

Responses from the Orange County Public Schools’ deputy counsel and the reported guidance delivered by the legal team during “Camp Legal” training have left me incredibly concerned for my children’s public education.

On July 12, a proposal was made to add into OCPS policy this definition of pornography: “Any depiction (written narrative or graphic) of any person engaged in ‘sexual conduct’ as that term is defined in Section 847.001(16).” It was written this way because a legal definition does not exist in the law. What is defined in statute is “harmful to minors.”

It states a creative work must be reviewed 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 sole intent to arouse. This definition is why OCPS library policy currently requires a review committee for media objections. With this update, though, anything the Superintendent determines is “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 negatively impact the classroom. What is to come of AP literature that contains sexual conduct? How can we teach about human reproduction? What about famous poetry, historical movies, and classical art that depict sex and contain nudity? The answer given by the deputy counsel was, “I don’t think this will apply to the classics.”

This came moments after Board Chair Teresa Jacobs declared the book “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe as an example of “pornography” under their definition. Never mind the fact that the intention of the work is not to arouse; the illustrations that depict sexual conduct are for the purposes of showing the asexual author’s discomfort with conventional sexual acts. The book also teaches the reader about setting boundaries in healthy relationships.

If this book would qualify as “pornography,” then one should expect “Romeo and Juliet” to meet the same fate. But, as the Deputy Counsel declared, that book would be safe, along with the Bible, AP required reading, and health class. Why? Because these materials are necessary to meet state standards outlined in more descriptive statutes.

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

It’s clear going forward the goal of district legal counsel is to avoid challenges and accusations altogether. They seem to reason that these controversies can be avoided if they simply narrow the universe of books available, unconcerned about students’ constitutional rights to read.

This is indeed taking things to the most “extreme” position. Banning books en masse for including LGBTQ+ identities is extreme. Burgess’s caution is, unfortunately, coming true.

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

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