Jonathan Friedman: DeSantis is wrong. Book bans in Florida schools and in other states aren’t a ‘hoax.’
Book banners have been arguing that there are no book bans. Jonathan Friedman of PEN America replies to that claim.
It turns out nobody wants to be known as a book banner.
So when news broke last month that Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” was being restricted to middle school shelves in a Miami-Dade County school, the Florida district was quick to insist that the book had not been banned. Some conservative voices rallied to the school’s defense, as did Florida’s commissioner of education and Gov. Ron DeSantis. He has dismissed reporting on book bans by the news media as a “hoax.”
Was the media mistaken?
The Gorman affair is the latest in a string of stories about book bans, in which the use of the term “ban” is being contested. To avoid charges of censorship, school administrators, government officials and groups like Moms for Liberty have taken to calling the results of their efforts “quarantine” or “curation” – anything but “ban.”
What happened with “The Hill We Climb” is no small thing. A parent filed an objection with the district noting that the book “is not educational and have indirectly hate messages,” [sic] and saying that she believed the function of the material was to “cause confusion and indoctrinate” students.
Despite the absence of further substance, school leaders took this challenge seriously and decided to move the book from general availability for elementary school students to the middle school shelves.
While district officials later told parents that the book was still accessible to all students, they also clarified that to access the book, elementary students will have to ask a media specialist for permission to see it and prove that they read at a fifth grade level.
Gorman’s book was not shifted from one shelf to another only to better guide student readers (something that librarians do routinely), but rather to impose a new restriction on it. Given that this began with this one parent’s objection, it can hardly be argued that it was solely a pedagogical decision or separate from efforts to suppress books and censor teaching in Florida and nationwide.
The stakes in these cases are high.
Ultimately, what’s at stake when we talk about book bans is student learning and well-being. Semantic gymnastics about what is or isn’t a ban is an effort to deny and distract from the problem. When school districts reduce or prohibit access to books in response to the bogus demands of a single individual, they put the needs and interests of all on a back burner. When they determine that books representing historically marginalized identities are inappropriate, they send students and families a disturbing message about whose stories matter. When state legislators enable and support these actions, they are complicit.
Luckily, Friedman offers a solution.
If people don’t want to be known as book banners, there’s a simple solution: Stop trying to ban books.