The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion New fears about Ron DeSantis’s book crackdowns show his odious game

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). (David Becker for the Washington Post)
5 min

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s crusade against “wokeness” thrives not just on zealotry, but also on deliberate vagueness. His laws restricting classroom discussion of race and sex are fuzzily drafted, leading educators to feel as though they’re perpetually on thin ice, always in danger of straying into “woke” transgressions that are too vaguely defined to provide clear guidance.

This is why you’ve seen stories about a wave of confusion gripping Florida educators. They already fear that books shelved in classrooms might violate DeSantis’s directives, and they are opting to cover up these mini-libraries or remove them altogether. Others have purged books with LGBTQ characters even if they have no sexual content.

Now, another development is showing how this vagueness spreads confusion and panic. The Florida Association for Supervisors of Media (FASM), which represents supervisors of public school library programs and collections, is asking the state to clarify whether DeSantis’s “Stop Woke Act” and “don’t say gay” law apply not just to classroom bookshelves, but also to school libraries.

“They will not tell us in writing that they don’t,” Michelle Jarrett, the president of FASM, told me. "We’re not getting a clear message.”

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This has FASM and its members worrying that reams of books in school libraries — which, like those available in classrooms, are sitting on shelves for students to peruse, as opposed to being actively taught — might be unlawful.

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The “don’t say gay” law bans “classroom instruction” on “sexual orientation or gender identity” through third grade, and partially restricts it in higher grades. If that applies to school libraries, it could mean they are barred from having books “with different kinds of families accessible to grades K through three,” says Jarrett — meaning they couldn’t keep them on general library shelves, which are also open to older students.

Meanwhile, the Stop Woke Act bans subjecting any student to “instruction” that promotes the concept that “status” is determined by race or color, among other things. If this applies to libraries, Jarrett worries, it could mean some books on “social justice or antiracism” must be removed.

Crucially, this confusion is being created by the DeSantis administration. Those laws don’t appear on their face to apply to school libraries. But as Jarrett notes, recent Florida Department of Education training guidance explicitly says that material “you would not be comfortable” reading out loud should probably mean it shouldn’t be in a “school library for children.”

That vague language is leading librarians to fear that DeSantis’s laws do apply to libraries, or at least that those laws should serve as guides to what should be removed from them, Jarrett says: “The training definitely was meant to scare people.”

So Jarrett recently wrote a formal request to the department, asking for clarification on how those laws “affect self-selected material in a school library.” She still hasn’t received an answer, she says, though importantly, the department has recognized this as a valid demand and has promised an answer soon.

If the department clarifies in writing that the laws don’t apply to libraries, that would be welcome. But at this point, as all those other recent developments involving schools and libraries confirm, there’s no question that the vagueness of these laws, and of administration guidance on how to apply them, is an essential feature of DeSantis’s project.

It is designed to make educators feel perpetually in danger. They then fear that the “wrong” language about our racial past or the persistence of discrimination behind ostensibly colorblind laws and institutions, or the “wrong” answer to a student’s question about LGBTQ issues, risks legal punishment. Better to refrain from discussing such dangerous topics.

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This goes well beyond DeSantis. As a recent report by PEN America found, many “educational gag” laws around the country are sloppily drafted. That not only creates a larger opening for parents and other citizens to charge violations, but also invites them to see plots against their children lurking everywhere. Demagogues are feeding these fears, alleging nefarious schemes to rob kids of their innocence by sexualizing them, or to indoctrinate them into believing their country is inherently white supremacist and evil.

To be fair, bureaucrats offering guidance on DeSantis’s policies may be well-meaning public servants trying to advise educators in good faith. But if so, they, too, are struggling precisely because of the climate of uncertainty that DeSantis’s “wokeness” crackdown has unleashed.

DeSantis, of course, was reelected by a smashing margin, so one has to allow that most Floridians might not see these laws this way. And that’s sobering for those of us who find them reprehensible.

But here again the vagueness might be the point. Not only does that drafting instill fear in those who are struggling to interpret what it requires; it also makes it easier for these laws’ sponsors to sell them as mere common-sense restrictions in defense of children. It’s yet another way this project is an odious one all the way down.