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Pinellas School District's review of 87 books gets pushback from anti-censorship groups

 Collage of 24 books laid out in rows.
Tashie Tierney
WUSF Public Media
There are 87 books up for review by the Pinellas County School District on July 10-11, 2023. Many of the books on the list feature minority and LGBTQ+ characters.

Pinellas County School District is reviewing 87 books. Some of the authors are joining with anti-censorship groups to push back, pointing out that a lot of the books in question are "by and about marginalized creators."

The Library Media Review Team for Pinellas County Schools is scheduled to review 87 books.

Over 50 of the book's authors are joining with three anti-censorship groups to request it be cancelled — but the county said it will go on as scheduled.

The authors joined PEN America, Florida Freedom to Read, and We Need Diverse Books in sending a joint letter to the district opposing the review.

The letter expressed understanding of the pressure placed on schools, but said targeting these specific titles "sets a terrible precedent and message that diverse books need to be further scrutinized and censored, just because they are by and about marginalized creators."

"But it is the responsibility of the district to protect the rights of all students, not just a few," the letter continued. "Erring on the side of caution should never mean censoring the voices of marginalized creators and promoting a discriminatory effect on what books are made available to the community."

The review is scheduled July 10-11, and is not open to the public.

A list of the 87 books up for review was sent to WUSF by Pinellas County School officials.

PEN America's Kacey Meehan is the program director for Freedom to Read. She said most of the books on the list have already been reviewed by media specialists.

"What (PEN America) is seeing is there's another layer of review being added to a group of books, a selection of books that overwhelmingly represent minority characters, voices, and stories," she said. "We have been alarmed about what legislation and what the culture and climate in Florida is doing for teachers, librarians, and school boards."

She said the Parental Rights in Education Law, or what critics call the "Don't Say Gay Law," is making it harder for books that represent a diverse set of individuals and stories to make their way into classrooms and school libraries.

"We also recognize that districts are in a really complicated position as they're figuring out how to respond to state legislation," Meehan said.

And she wonders if that is building a "climate of censorship."

Meehan believes the state legislation is being used to identify, name, and remove books that she says "overwhelmingly feature LGBTQ+ characters, characters of color, and also talk about sex and sexual experiences."

In a statement to WUSF, the Public Information Officer for Pinellas County Schools Isabel Mascareñas said the Library Media Review Team evaluates books each year to ensure they "align with state law."

"It also provides recommendations to school administrators, teachers, and library media technology specialists. This year’s review list mainly features books from the Sunshine State Young Readers Awards, Jr. SSYRA, and the Florida Teens Read list, which may be used in district competitions. 

"The team is also considering some newly published books and a few requested titles for review. The district’s primary objective is to select books that meet state requirements while enabling students to connect with the characters and feel represented." 

But Raegan Miller points out that that doesn't seem to be the case.

The Director of Development for the Florida Freedom Project said what surprised her most is "when you get to that bottom part of the list... and you see that it's all minority characters, minority authors, and it's more stories of lived experiences of minority groups."

"I think that these laws that are so called non-discriminatory are doing what they've intended them to do, which is to discriminate," she said, referencing the Parental Rights in Education Law.

Miller said if the books end up being banned from classrooms and school libraries, it will only hurt students.

For some young people, their only way to access books is through their schools. Banning them will limit student's opportunity to see themselves reflected in books.

Miller said her hope is that every single book on the list is "on the shelves and available at the start of the school year."

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.