Wasserman Schultz, Cherfilus-McCormick Lead Call for DeSantis to End Florida Book Bans

Washington, DC – Today, U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-25) and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (FL-20) led fellow Florida Democrats in calling on  Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to end his administration’s campaign of censorship in Florida’s schools, citing evidence that book bans negatively impact LGBTQI+ and Black students. Additionally, this letter requests that Governor DeSantis substantively engage with educators, librarians, and parents to protect students’ rights to an inclusive, and comprehensive education. 

According to PENAmerica, Florida became the national leader in banned books in the 2022-2023 school year, with a 40% increase in banned or challenged titles compared to the 2021-2022 school year. This concerning statistic is accompanied by the fact that many of these stories feature LGBTQ+ or Black characters. Unfortunately, this censorship represents a direct attack on these communities that ultimately impacts the wellbeing of Florida’s underrepresented students.

“The dangerous practice of banning books and silencing educators is not new and has always been used by those who want to roll back progress, sow fear and division, hide important truths, and foment moral panic. And banning books because they contain LGBTQ+ content or censoring educators and students in the classroom is a shameful attempt to silence LGBTQ+ stories and further isolate LGBTQ+ kids. There is no freedom in banned books, and all students — no matter their background, sexual orientation, or gender identity — deserve the freedom to feel safe and welcomed in schools and libraries,” said David Stacy, Human Rights Campaign Vice President for Government Affairs.

The lead authors were joined by a majority of the Florida Democratic Delegation, including Reps. Kathy Castor (FL-14), Lois Frankel (FL-22), Maxwell Frost (FL-10), and Darren Soto (FL-09).

This letter has been endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign, PEN America, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the Interfaith Alliance, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Children deserve to see themselves in books, and to have access to a diversity of views and expressions. By making knowledge and ideas available via a wide range of books, school libraries serve the educational process. PEN America applauds Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz and Cherfilus-McCormick’s leadership in standing up for the freedom to read in Florida,” said Katie Blankenship, Director of PEN America Florida.

“The increasing prevalence of book bans, and the commensurate surge in legislative attempts to limit the teaching of race, gender, American history, and LGBTQI+ identities, is eroding the fundamental freedom for students to read, learn, and think critically,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen,Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “These bans are often implemented without considering the harm they will cause to students, families, and educators. Such actions will only further alienate transgender youth from their peers and send the harmful message that transgender students and students of color don’t exist and don’t belong. In sending this message, we’re continuing to damage the mental health of an already vulnerable group such as transgender youth, who are more likely to experience suicidality, especially because of legislative attacks such as these. Everyone should have the freedom to see their identities and experiences reflected in the stories they read and in the lessons they’re taught in schools, including transgender children. Sweeping censorship will only continue to foster misunderstanding about transgender people among the public. By removing LGBTQI+ content from school curriculum and banning books containing LGBTQI+ identities & experiences, we are depriving future generations of a robust education informed by diverse perspectives and experiences.”

“According to GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey, 82% of LGBTQ+ youth reported feeling unsafe in school, and book bans are only causing more harm,” said Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, Executive Director of GLSEN.“Inclusive school curriculum – including access to books about LGBTQ+ people – can act as a window for young people into the diverse world around them, as well as a mirror to reflect their own experiences and identities. As adults, it is our job to model the future for the next generation, and our youth deserve to grow up in a society that celebrates – not limits – diversity.”

“Book bans are being used by religious extremists in Florida to erase those who look, believe, or love differently than they do,” said Rev. Dr. Sharon Harris-Ewing, steering committee member of the Interfaith Alliance of Southwest Florida. “Schools and libraries are supposed to be spaces where young people are introduced to democratic ideals and the diverse points of view that shape our country. Censoring the stories of people from minority faiths, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender identities is antithetical to fulfilling America’s promise of religious freedom and civil rights for all. It is time to end this campaign of fear that violates our First Amendment freedoms and weaponizes faith to erase history and diverse viewpoints.”

“Gov. DeSantis has unleashed an army of book banners who claim they are protecting freedom and the rights of parents. The reality is that they bully school and library boards to deny the rights of parents who want an honest education for their children, free of ideologically inspired censorship,” said Howard Simon, Interim Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

The full text of the letter can be found below.

Dear Governor DeSantis:

We write to share our grave concern regarding the sharp uptick of banned and challenged books across the state of Florida, and the alarming hostility of your administration toward schools, libraries and the professionals who operate them for our constituents. These combined actions, if left unchecked, will foment a noxious climate of repression and marginalization that degrades learning, understanding and undermines all Floridians’ basic freedoms. 

The American Library Association recently reported that 2,571 unique titles were banned or challenged last year in the United States, marking a 40 percent increase from 2021.[1] Even more worrisome is the targeted attack on stories written by and about people of color and LGBTQI+ individuals, with 30 percent of book bans last school year featuring stories about race and 26 percent of stories featuring LGBTQI+ themes.[2] As a result of your signing House Bills 1467 and 1069 into law, Florida is now the national leader in banned books.[3] Given that reality, and combined with your administration’s recent decision to cut ties with the American Library Association[4]we strongly urge you to end this campaign of censorship in schools and substantively engage with educators, librarians, and parents to protect our students’ rights to an inclusive, comprehensive education.

The censorship of books not only poses a threat to our children’s well-rounded quality education, but it also infringes on their First Amendment rights. In Board of Education v. Pico, a case in which New York school board members attempted to strip books such as Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. from the Island Trees Union Free School District, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that “First Amendment rights, applied in the light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to… students.”[5] The Court also opined that the First Amendment may “impose…  limitations upon a local school board’s exercise of its discretion to remove books from high school and junior high school libraries,”[6] and suggested that books may not be removed from school libraries simply because a school board disagrees with its content. Despite these considerations, you have signed legislation and enabled local efforts to censor an unprecedented number of books, leaving schools with fewer resources that are less reflective of our communities.

As you are likely aware, the banning of books that feature LGBTQI+ characters, themes, and stories deprives students of essential learning opportunities, denies them access to diverse perspectives, and fosters a culture of discrimination and exclusion. Indeed, legislative attacks against this community have proven to be devastating to the educational success and mental health of our LGBTQI+ youth. As part of their 2023 survey, The Trevor Project reported that nearly two in three LGBTQI+ young people said that hearing about potential laws banning discussions of LGBTQI+ individuals at school made their mental health “a lot worse.”[7] In the 2021 GLSEN National School Climate Survey, nearly 70 percent of LGBTQI+ youth felt unsafe in their school environment, with almost one in three LGBTQI+ students missing at least one day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.[8] Just last year, The Trevor Project also found that 45 percent of LGBTQI+ youth in Florida seriously considered suicide in 2022, with 16 percent of individuals actually attempting to take their life.[9] Instead of addressing these concerns, your administration has continued to demonize the LGBTQ+ community by falsely equating stories that uplift LGBTQI+ youth with child predation.

Similarly harmful impacts can be expected with the erasure of stories that discuss and tackle racism or explore the experiences of various communities of color or under-represented voices. For instance, the alarming dearth of Black voices and images in children’s literature has long been a publishing and academic blemish,[10] and your actions will only compound the educational adversity that these students of color already confront.     

It is our firm belief that the banning of books because they contain LGBTQI+ content, or involve issues of race or ethnicity, is an explicit attempt to silence the stories of communities that already face an onslaught of legislative attacks, especially in Florida. As Governor, it is your responsibility to ensure Florida’s classrooms remain bastions of growth and inclusivity, rather than sanctuaries of division and hatred. Ultimately, it is crucial that you and your administration acknowledge the value of diverse stories in helping forge students who are welcoming and accepting of individuals regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other characteristics.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.