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The Right to Read Festival in Venice will shine a spotlight on freedoms

Books on a library bookshelf
Victoria Crosdale
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WUSF
The Right to Read Festival: All Books for All People, will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 24 at 1971 Pinebrook Road in Venice. The grounds are home to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Venice, a partner organization.

Social Justice Alliance of the Florida Suncoast plans a Feb. 24 event with music and speakers in Venice.

Venice’s Anna Drallios thinks of her native Albania when talking about her home state of Florida.

She recalls the hard-line rule of Enver Hoxha, the nation’s prime minister from 1944 until his death in 1985, and the way his regime stifled opposition, restricted access to all but state media and led with intolerance.

And while the Sunshine State in 2024 is a far cry from a post-war Soviet satellite nation behind the Iron Curtain, the Venice resident said recent developments here and now still concern her.

“There was no freedom of expression, no freedom of religion, no First Amendment right at all,” Drallios said. “We must not allow that to happen. I will not go back to Communist Albania, because I know what that was like, and my family escaped those circumstances. My parents risked our lives to cross mountains so we could escape, and to have it happen here, it’s unacceptable.”

Drawing of a purple school bus that says Shelf Indulgence Book Bus
Shelf Indulgence
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Courtesy
The Shelf Indulgence Used Book Café's banned book bus will be present at the festival.

Drallios says she’s disturbed by recent changes to the way school-library books can be removed from shelves after a challenge — including dictionaries in one Florida school
district this year. Also, she said, recent votes by Sarasota and Manatee county commissions to cut ties between local libraries and the American Library Association are more examples of governments going too far.

Manatee County on Jan. 9 cut ties with ALA “until such time that we are assured they’re no longer pushing a woke agenda.” Sarasota did the same on similar grounds in November, as did Charlotte County a month later.

Drallios is not alone in her concerns as a founding member of Social Justice Alliance of the Florida Suncoast. Its first major public event is planned in February. The Right to Read Festival: All Books for All People, will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 24 at 1971 Pinebrook Road in Venice. The grounds are home to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Venice, a partner organization.

David Brostrom, a member of the SJAFS who has been instrumental in organizing the festival, says the event will spotlight censorship, educate community members and provide a stage for authors and advocates. Food trucks will be on hand, and a giveaway of banned books for kids and adults is planned.

Along with musicians performing live, several regional and national speakers will present on the risks of censorship and how book banning plays a role, their personal experiences with access to literature, and how people can take action.

Gray-haired man with a Detroit Tigers polo smiling into the camera
Sarah Owens
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Community News Collaborative
John VanCamp is a Venice resident and a founding member of the Social Justice Alliance of the Florida Suncoast.

“Our mission is to promote productive discussions about intellectual freedom and censorship, to support librarians and teachers and authors and publishers and journalists and booksellers and readers opposed to censorship,” said John VanCamp, the man behind the idea for the SJAFS, “to foster a society that embraces diversity of thought, encourages critical thinking and uphold[s] constitutional rights to freedom for all.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis released a statement almost one year ago “exposing the book ban hoax,” saying that the “mainstream media, unions and leftist activists'” reports of empty library shelves and complaints that state schools were not allowed to teach such topics as slavery were untrue.

He noted that since 2022 when school districts were first required to report the number of books removed from libraries, 175 books had been removed statewide. He said 164 of those books were removed from media centers and 153 were identified as pornographic, violent or inappropriate for grade level.

PEN America, an international free-expression organization, countered with a report of its own, saying 565 books were removed for review from Florida schools from July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022.

Of those, 72 have been banned in libraries, 125 have been banned from libraries and classrooms and 365 are still pending.

“Our stories are our truth, our reality, and they cannot muzzle us,” Drallios said.“ They can’t stop me from deciding what books my children read, that’s my decision. Not any government, not one parent should be able to go to a library and find a book offensive and therefore have the book removed from the library.”

Scheduled presenters at the event include award-winning LGBTQIA+ children's book author Rob Sanders, Port Charlotte publisher and author James Abraham, journalist Carrie Seidman, social justice organizer Zander Moricz from SEE Alliance, Sarasota
County School Board member Tom Edwards, Kent Oliver of the Freedom to Read Foundation/American Library Association, presenter Michael Scanlan, Blue Lotus Buddhist Meditation Center and children's performer and naturalist David Stokes. Punta Gorda writer and history re-enactor Martha Bireda will perform on life in Punta Gorda during the Jim Crow era. The event is free.

To view the festival schedule or learn more about the SJAFS, visit the organization's website.

Sarah Owens is a reporter for the Community News Collaborative. You can reach her at
slowens@cncfl.org.

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