Skip to Content

Children and parents begin uphill fightback against book bans in Florida


By Elle Reeve and Samantha Guff, CNN

Central Florida (CNN) — Now that books are being banned and disappearing from school libraries, students and parents are showing up to school board meetings in Florida to argue for access to books that take on difficult subjects. But they are losing out to a new state law that makes it easier for opponents to get books off shelves.

The conservative Moms for Liberty and allied groups turned board meetings into spectacle, reading out explicit passages from books without context to argue that they should not be available to minors. This summer, a Florida law went into effect stating that if a board member stopped a reading because it was offensive, the book could be removed immediately.

It turned performance into policy. Some school board lawyers are confused by the rules, and and those arguing for access have few ways to fight back.

“Adults who are doing this clearly don’t understand teenagers,” Trixie Meckley, a senior in high school in DeLand, central Florida, told CNN. When she’d heard about one of the books most frequently banned from school libraries, “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” she’d searched the graphic novel on Google to see what the fuss was about. “It honestly looks pretty interesting,” she said.

Meckley’s friend, junior Riley Kellogg, has been an obsessive reader since middle school. “I actually have a sticker on my phone right now that says, ‘If you ban a book, I add it to my summer reads list,’” Kellogg said.

Children and their parents with means can certainly still access the works in bookstores or other libraries if they know about them.

According to a PEN America study, more than 40% of book bans nationwide last school year happened in school districts in Florida.

Moms for Liberty chapters have a plan of action to offer to supporters.

“You want to get shut down. Only read the dirtiest bits that we give to you,” a Moms for Liberty member north of Orlando in Seminole County urged viewers in a Facebook video.

But in Seminole County itself, the school board just let them read the dirty bits without stopping them – which could have triggered the ban.

They had more success south of Orlando, in Indian River County, where Moms for Liberty and likeminded allies got dozens of books removed.

And in Volusia County, a neighbor of Seminole, a school board meeting took on the atmosphere of a professional wrestling match: Everyone knows what’s going to happen, but they all want to watch anyway. The Moms for Liberty knew they’d be reading sex scenes, the people who showed up to oppose them knew they’d be reading sex scenes and the school board knew they’d be reading sex scenes. But for the spectacle to matter, a school board member had to declare the words were inappropriate for the crowd who came to hear them.

Merrick Brunker, who’s running for a school board seat, stood at the podium and addressed the board: “And then suddenly Matt was inside her, pumping so hard that she scooted backward on the carpet, burning the backs of her legs…” He was reading from “Nineteen Minutes,” a novel by Jodi Picoult about the aftermath of a school shooting that was a best-seller in 2007. “‘Wait,’ Josie said, trying to roll away beneath him, but he clamped his hand over her mouth and drove harder and harder until Josie felt him come.”

“Point of order,” a school board member said.

“Semen, stick–” Brunker continued.

“Please stop,” the member said.

Brunker threw up his hands.

Kellogg, the high school junior, also spoke at that meeting. “I have learned a lot more about the world around me through books than I have through my own eyes,” she said. “Although there might be something in a book that some people don’t want there to be, the books ultimately have a message. … They should stay in the libraries.”

Jacob Smith, who said he graduated from a county school in 2017, also addressed the board.

“I’m actually Gen Z … and we have certain feelings about how we want to be educated,” Smith said.

His father had read banned books decades ago, he added. “I don’t want to continue fighting the same things we were fighting from the previous generations … I want Gen Z to be a generation of people that find new peace, find new justice that America has never achieved before.”

“I think it’s ridiculous that we’re going back in time,” Smith said.

Florida’s new state law, HB 1069, came into effect in July. It followed lobbying from groups who were unhappy that books they complained about, including classics like “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “The Bluest Eye,” often stayed on shelves after they were read in their entirety by a committee of parents, school officials and a librarian and deemed appropriate.

“There was what I call a loophole in the statute that said the material needed to be taken as a whole, and if it had any literary value then it could stay,” Jenifer Kelly, chair of Moms for Liberty in Volusia County, told CNN. “However, I think of the analogy – if you have something poisonous inside a brownie, and you know it’s there, are you going to take a bite of that brownie? No.”

She said she was not interested in the views of students. “If they’re 17 or younger? No. It’s their parents’ decision.”

In Indian River County, at the first school board meeting after a session of many sex scene readings, Michael Marsh was angry. A parent with a book complaint could have gone to the school principal, he said. Instead, “they chose to bring the theater here and for the circus to happen here,” he said.

It’s not that he liked every single book that Moms for Liberty had targeted, he added. But the tactics were not OK, he said, wearing a T-shirt in the style of Moms for Liberty that read “Mike for Liberty” with the tagline, “Your parental rights do not stop mine.” On the back of the shirt was a photo of his daughters. “I’m the proud parent of two beautiful interracial queens,” he said.

“They are not the majority. They are bullies,” Marsh said of Moms for Liberty. “This is what happens when no one runs and everyone’s asleep. Well, you know what, I’m wide awake – or ‘woke,’ which is the bad word of the day.”

Of school board members who were aligned with Moms for Liberty, he said, “We’ve got to vote them out. We have to continue to educate, not just parents, educate staff. And we can’t have people in fear anymore.”

Any change via the polls will take time, and those who’ve been fighting against book removals are already tired, explained Julie Miller, a former Clay County media specialist – the modern term for a librarian. She has been an outspoken critic of book bans, watching the phenomenon grow since November 2021, when she received an objection to “All Boys Aren’t Blue.”

At first, she thought there could be compromise and understanding. There were some books marketed like young adult novels but really meant for readers in their early 20s and contained vivid sex scenes. The school didn’t need to offer those. But eventually, targeted books included prize-winning classics like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “The Bluest Eye,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and so on. She says she was given a lateral job move in June and decided to leave Clay County Schools.

“There is no fight right now – not in this state – there is no fight that we can win. Because it’s not just us vs. Moms for Liberty” and allied groups, she said. “It’s us versus them, and the school board members that they have successfully gotten elected, and the legislators who have written these draconian but also vague laws that that are so one-sided, and unbeatable.”

“There’s a lot of hopelessness,” Miller said.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - National

Jump to comments ↓



KTVZ NewsChannel 21 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content