The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A new book-ban fiasco in Florida reveals the monster DeSantis created

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks in Des Moines on March 10. (Rachel Mummey For The Washington Post)
5 min

By now, it should be blindingly obvious that many red-state book crackdowns are designed to encourage the impulse toward censorship. By enabling lone actors to get dozens of titles removed from school library shelves while meeting deliberately vague criteria for objecting to them, these measures invite overzealous parents to hunt for books to purge.

A bill advancing in the Florida state legislature suggests this could create problems for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is using book crackdowns to bolster his GOP presidential hopes. As it gets easier for single objectors to get books removed, the bans could get more absurd — and stick to DeSantis himself.

The proposal in question, which appears to have the governor’s general support, would require the instant removal of certain books targeted for objections, even before any sort of evaluative process unfolds. Advocates for free expression say this represents something new.

“If Florida passes this bill, it may be the first state in the country to institute in every public school a rule requiring the immediate removal of materials following an objection,” Jeffrey Sachs, a political scientist who closely tracks these proposals, told me. “For activists on the right, this is a new strategy that will greatly speed the process of censoring materials."

The provision is buried in a bill that’s already received attention for another reason: It would expand the state’s “don’t say gay” law prohibiting classroom discussion of sex and gender up to high school — well beyond the initial goal of limiting discussion only through third grade.

That’s bad, but the book-banning provision, which has attracted far less attention, makes it worse. That part of the bill mandates that instructional material facing objection in public schools through 12th grade for depicting “sexual” or “pornographic” conduct be “unavailable to students until the objection is resolved.”

This means books and other materials would be removed before something akin to due process occurs. Such objections could be lodged not just by a parent, but any resident in the county, meaning anyone could get a book removed more easily than before.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Republican state Sen. Clay Yarborough, doesn’t deny this. He holds it up as a positive. In a statement emailed to me, Yarborough cited the bill’s targeting of sexual material and said he will always “err on the side of protecting children.”

“I do not have any concerns with the materials being removed until an objection is resolved,” Yarborough added.

Obviously, serious pornographic and lewd sexual content should be prohibited through 12th grade, and erring on the side of caution for offensive material is understandable. But the problem with this provision as written is that it can be flagrantly abused.

Take the case of “The Bluest Eye,” a novel by Toni Morrison. In at least one Florida county — Pinellas — parental objections have already resulted in the book being banned from schools because it features a rape scene, even though students protested that it was important to their education.

If the new bill passes, it would become statewide policy that this book — or others with similarly peripheral “sexual conduct” — must be banned from a given district’s schools immediately upon the objection of one resident of that county, says Kara Gross, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

“It grants enormous power to a single bigoted individual to dictate and control what books other parents’ kids have access to,” Gross told me.

This, in turn, could make it easier for bad-faith actors to nix books while avoiding a process in which baseless objections might initially get dismissed. As Sachs put it, “the automatic removal provision will be abused and lead to widespread censorship.”

Right-wing activists in Florida are already lodging objections on vaguely sexual grounds to an extraordinary range of books, as the Popular Information newsletter demonstrated. In some cases, dozens of books are getting banned in counties because of the objections of one parent, as happened when a member of the right-wing “Moms for Liberty” orchestrated the removal of 20 Jodi Picoult novels from school libraries in Martin County.

It can take months to process an objection, meaning this bill, if passed, could take a book out of circulation for long periods even if the complaint is groundless. This will obviously invite activists and lone parents to mount as many flimsy objections as possible. The likely result? More absurdities such as the ban of Picoult novels, and more national scrutiny tying those absurdities to DeSantis’s book-crackdown regime.

DeSantis probably calculates that this would serve his short-term political interests. Headlines about banned books — and liberal outrage in response — will bolster him among GOP primary voters. It might boost him among party elites who want to see DeSantis harness MAGA’s preoccupations toward defeating former president Donald Trump in the Republican primary.

But those elites are also backing DeSantis because he supposedly can win back suburban voters alienated by Trump. And national stories about the latest book-banning frenzy would probably undermine that suburban appeal.

So, DeSantis can keep incentivizing these self-deputized local book-purging czars to go on their rampages if he must. Yet it’s likely he will have to answer for the whims of these petty functionaries when their efforts run off the rails.