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The Escalating Literary Odyssey in Florida’s School Districts

Amidst the unfolding educational saga in Florida, a school district has embarked on an unexpected quest to expand the realm of banned literature, delving into an arena one wouldn’t typically associate with censorship: dictionaries. The Escambia County school district, as disclosed by the nonprofit PEN America, has cast its gaze upon five dictionaries, eight encyclopedias, and even “The Guinness Book of World Records,” incorporating them into a compendium of over 1,600 books teetering on the brink of prohibition.

This literary catalog, initially unearthed by the Florida Freedom to Read Project, a nonprofit that emerged in response to Florida’s wave of book bans, reveals a cascade of restrictions already imposed. Notable works such as Alice Sebold’s “Lucky,” Sapphire’s “Push,” and Kyle Luckoff’s “When Aidan Became a Brother” – a poignant narrative chronicling the journey of a young transgender boy assuming the role of an elder sibling – have already faced the chopping block.

PEN America sheds light on a compilation exceeding 1,600 books, characterized as “banned pending investigation in December 2023.” Amongst this plethora, titles like John T. Alexander’s “Catherine the Great: Life and Legend,” “Speak: The Graphic Novel,” Carl Hiaasen’s “Hoot,” and Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl” find themselves ensnared.

The Unlikely Targets: Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

Noteworthy inclusions on this ostensible index of literary transgressions encompass “Merriam-Webster’s Elementary Dictionary,” “The Bible Book,” “The World Book Encyclopedia of People and Places,” “Guinness Book of World Records, 2000,” “Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus for Students,” and “The American Heritage Children’s Dictionary.”

In pursuit of elucidation, CBS News sought commentary from the Escambia school district, yet their response remained elusive at the time of publication. A district spokesperson, however, refuted allegations of outright bans, asserting that the books underwent temporary removal for meticulous scrutiny, ensuring alignment with recent legislative mandates.

The Messenger procured a comprehensive dossier delineating books currently under scrutiny. This compendium, revealing an evaluation tally still shy of 70, underscores the meticulous evaluation process. The books face scrutiny vis-à-vis HB 1069, a legislation sanctioned by Governor Ron DeSantis, which not only mandates the teaching of binary reproductive roles but also imposes constraints on sexual health education and prohibits books depicting “sexual conduct” deemed inappropriate for the designated age group.

A leaked training presentation from the Florida Freedom to Read Project expounds on the expansive definition of “sexual conduct,” encompassing a spectrum from sexual intercourse to bestiality and sexual battery. The purview of banned material extends to any portrayal of sexual activity or exposed human genitals.

Escambia’s Strides: Adhering to HB 1069

According to the legislation, any book arousing suspicion must be expunged within five school days and may only return to shelves post a thorough review. Escambia Superintendent Keith Leonard, in an August statement to the Pensacola News Journal, touted the district’s strides in aligning with HB 1069, a process initiated in July with aspirations of concluding book reviews by May 2024.

Kasey Meehan, program director of PEN America’s Freedom to Read initiative, decries Florida’s evolving censorship landscape, asserting it deprives students of pivotal literary works, including those addressing significant subjects like the Holocaust and, ironically, the Dictionary. Meehan characterizes this as an egregious extension of the law’s language pertaining to “sexual conduct,” urging the immediate restoration of the banned titles.

Stephana Ferrell, director of research and insight at the Florida Freedom to Read Project, applauds the district’s diligence in scrutinizing each book but contends that the endeavor requires augmented staffing and support. Expressing concern that many temporarily removed books may never reappear in school libraries, Ferrell criticizes the Department of Education’s guidance as irresponsible.

The situation in Escambia has triggered resonance beyond its confines, mirroring issues manifesting in diverse districts. Ferrell contends that flawed legislation necessitates intervention from the Florida Department of Education to rectify the predicament and safeguard children’s educational interests.

In a show of solidarity against the district’s removals, PEN America, alongside publisher Penguin Random House, authors, and parents, has initiated legal action. A recent judicial ruling has granted the lawsuit traction, citing its constitutional standing under the First Amendment, as reported by the Associated Press.

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