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Florida school district pulls dictionaries and encyclopedias as part of "inappropriate" content review

Merriam-Webster Word of the Year
Posted at 1:22 PM, Jan 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-12 15:27:10-05

One school district in Florida is looking to extend the state's book ban to an unexpected genre: dictionaries. According to a list obtained and published by the nonprofit PEN America, the Escambia County school district has included five dictionaries, eight encyclopedias and "The Guinness Book of World Records," in its list of more than 1,600 books that could soon be banned.

The list of books was initially obtained by the Florida Freedom to Read Project, a nonprofit that was started in 2021 when Florida started to initiate book bans in schools across the state. The district has a list of books that have been formally challenged on its website as well, which shows that several books have already been restricted and removed, including Alice Sebold's "Lucky," Sapphire's "Push," and Kyle Luckoff's "When Aidan Became a Brother," a picture book that tells the story of a young transgender boy and his new role as a big brother.

According to PEN America, the list consists of more than 1,600 books "banned pending investigation in December 2023." Among titles on the list are: 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."

Also on the list are "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."

CBS News reached out to the Escambia school district for comment, but did not hear back prior to publication. In a statement to The Messenger, a spokesperson for the district said that the books "have not been banned or removed from the school district."

"Rather, they have simply been pulled for further review to ensure compliance with the new legislation," the spokesperson said. "To suggest otherwise is disingenuous and counterproductive."

The Messenger obtained a spreadsheet of the books under review. The list, which shows that fewer than 70 have so far been analyzed, indicates that the books are being reviewed for their compliance to HB 1069 – a bill approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year that, along with requiring schools to teach that "reproductive roles are binary, stable and unchangeable" and limiting education regarding sexual health, also bans schools from having books that depict or describe "sexual conduct" or "is inappropriate for the grade level and age group for which the material is used."

According to a training presentation that was obtained by the Florida Freedom to Read Project and shared with CBS News, sexual conduct includes sexual intercourse, sexual bestiality and sexual battery, among other things. "Sexually oriented material," which is also banned, includes any depiction of sexual activity, uncovered human genitals, the presentation says.

Any book that is deemed questionable based on this law "must be removed within 5 school days of receipt of the objection," and cannot be returned to shelves until it is reviewed, the bill says.

In August, Escambia Superintendent Keith Leonard told the Pensacola News Journal that the district was making "great strides" to adhere to HB 1069, which went into effect last July. According to the training presentation, the district started reviewing books last July and hopes to have all pulled books reviewed with a formal decision by May 2024.

"Florida's new censorship landscape under laws like HB 1069 is robbing students of all kinds of important books and resources, such as those on major topics like the Holocaust, and shockingly, the Dictionary," Kasey Meehan, program director of PEN America's Freedom to Read program, said. "This is a massive overextension of the language of the law, which mandates against 'sexual conduct,' and the school must return the titles immediately."

Stephana Ferrell, director of research and insight at the Florida Freedom to Read Project, told CBS News that within the last five months, fewer than 100 titles have been reviewed by the district.

"We applaud them for doing their due diligence to read and discuss every book before making a decision to permanently ban it from schools, but they need more dedicated, trained staff to help support this effort," Ferrell said. "Most of these books, though pulled temporarily as the district has stated, will never be accessible in the school library for most current secondary students."

Ferrell added that the guidance from the state's Department of Education is "irresponsible."

"What's happening in Escambia is ridiculous, but it is also happening in many other districts to varying degrees," Ferrell said. "The language in the law is bad. ... [The Florida Department of Education] are the ones with the power to fix this. Until then, districts will continue to 'err on the side of caution' as they have been told to do at the expense of our children's education."

PEN America has joined publisher Penguin Random House, authors and parents in filing a lawsuit against the district over its removals. On Wednesday, a judge ruled that the lawsuit can move forward, saying it has standing under the First Amendment, the Associated Press reported.