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As Gov. DeSantis Preps White House Run, PEN America Sues Florida School District over Book Ban

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With Ron DeSantis expected to formally announce his run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination this week, we look at his controversial record as governor of Florida, which has been marked by attacks on LGBTQ rights, immigrants, public education, antiracism initiatives and more. The NAACP recently issued a travel advisory for Florida, deeming the state to be “openly hostile” to Black Americans and other minority groups. Meanwhile, PEN America, the book publishing company Penguin Random House and several authors and parents are suing the Pensacola, Florida, school board for banning books on race and LGBTQ issues from school libraries for violating the First Amendment. The censorship “runs counter to the very role and purpose of public schools in a democracy,” says Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. We also speak with Kellie Carter Jackson, an associate professor of Africana studies at Wellesley College, who recently participated in a Florida teach-in to push back against DeSantis’s censorship. “We can’t discuss major events, major turning points, without talking about Black people, without talking about women, without talking about LGBTQ people,” she says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The NAACP has issued a formal travel advisory for Florida. In an announcement Saturday, the group said Florida is “hostile to Black Americans” under Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who’s expected to announce his run for the 2024 presidential nomination this week.

The moves comes after Florida passed the Stop WOKE Act to restrict conversations about race in schools and businesses. DeSantis has also attacked the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies course and on Monday signed into law a measure that blocks colleges from spending public funds on diversity, equity and inclusion. He also signed a slate of legislation Wednesday targeting the LGBTQ community.

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement, quote, “Let me be clear — failing to teach an accurate representation of the horrors and inequalities that Black Americans have faced and continue to face is a disservice to students and a dereliction of duty to all.”

The NAACP was joined by the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, and the LGBTQ rights group Equality Florida.

The moves comes as tourism is one of Florida’s biggest industries.

Meanwhile, PEN America, the book publishing company Penguin Random House and several other authors and parents are suing the Pensacola, Florida, school board for banning books on race and LGBTQ issues from school libraries, saying they violated the First Amendment.

For more, we’re beginning with Suzanne Nossel, CEO of the free expression group PEN America.

Suzanne, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you explain what this lawsuit is all about?

SUZANNE NOSSEL: Sure. We are suing in Escambia County to challenge the removal of books from classroom and school libraries. There are well over a hundred books that have been put under review and taken off classroom shelves for protracted periods while review processes are underway. That’s in contravention of the best practice guidelines that the American Library Association and others say you should follow, National Coalition Against Censorship, whereby books, if there’s an objection, should remain on the shelves while those objections are adjudicated. And then, there are more than 10 books that have been banned entirely. And this effort disproportionately targets books by and about authors of color, LGBTQ narratives.

And so we’re bringing a challenge under both the First and the 14th Amendments to the Constitution, the First Amendment because these bans and removals violate children’s right to read, and the 14th Amendment because they raise equality concerns. When books are targeted based on the stories told, who’s telling the stories, what the color or the sexual orientation of the characters, that violates our protections for equality in education. And so, we’re asking the school board to put these books back on the shelves, and the court to vindicate children’s right to read.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain really what this Stop WOKE Act says and how it allows for banned books? How specific is it? Or is it that the vagueness is what is so threatening?

SUZANNE NOSSEL: It’s really the vagueness. I mean, this idea that teachings that could create racial tension or make people feel guilty on the basis of their racial identity are prohibited raise all kinds of questions for teachers and librarians about what books might be construed to fall afoul of those restrictions. If a kid reads a book and they ask a question that demands an answer that could touch upon some of those sensitive topics, does the teacher risk being disciplined? Do they risk a complaint from a parent that could run all the way up the chain?

And that’s really the way censorship works deliberately — vague laws that don’t just pinpoint what specifically is out of bounds, but rather cast a broad chill, a pall on education. It’s teaching our children that there are ideas and books that are so dangerous that they ought to be off limits, which runs counter to the very role and purpose of public schools in a democracy, to be an incubator for citizenship, where you learn how to engage with all sorts of people, all sorts of ideas.

AMY GOODMAN: From your press release, in Escambia County, nearly 200 books have been challenged; 10 books have been removed by the school board; five books were removed by district committees; 139 books remain restricted, requiring parental permission. You also write, “Children in a democracy must not be taught that books are dangerous.” Talk more about the specific books that are banned and how exactly you plan to get these books back on the bookshelves.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: Yeah, sure. Look, it’s a long list of books. And it’s quite shocking to see things like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or Judy Blume’s Forever. You know, that’s a book that I grew up with, that, yes, was a little bit edgy in my time, but decades have passed. These are things that have been on the shelves, that have been treasured by young people for long periods of time, works of literature, Toni Morrison, a Nobel laureate in literature. So, to ban her books, you know, the idea that they have no value, no redeeming value for children, is outrageous.

There are also books like And Tango Makes Three, which is a story about same-sex penguins in the Central Park Zoo that raise a baby penguin, and this is being objected to because it’s seen as promoting LGBTQ lifestyles, or Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, about a child whose uncle gets married to a man. And so, it’s a real effort to both expunge books that are seen as contravening a very traditional, rigid conception of what family life ought to look like in America, and then books that are construed as sexually provocative. They’re being labeled pornography, even though they don’t bear any resemblance to the legal definition of pornography. So, it’s painting with a very broad brush.

And most of these objections have been brought by a single teacher in the school district. This is not a groundswell of parents who are raising these objections. It’s a single individual. And on the basis of that, in many cases, as we outline in our complaint, the school board has overridden the considered opinion of its own review panel. So, it has an empowered review panel of experts that it has designated to read books when there is an objection, to take a look and decide whether there is value for children, whether these books ought to remain in the classroom. And the pattern in Escambia that’s so disturbing is a political override of that expert opinion. So their own designated panel is being brushed to the side, and politics and ideology are ruling the day.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s interesting that you did this with Penguin Random House, a publisher. With the major textbook publishers, when they are told to take out certain things or their books will not be bought in a certain state, it’s not like they produce books for every state. So when one state does this, it changes the reading material all over the country, right? It’s not also just that Ron DeSantis is going to announce for president of the United States and so have that national impact, but it’s that the publishers have to go with the lowest common denominator, so they don’t have to selectively publish books in each state.

SUZANNE NOSSEL: Well, that’s right, and it’s a real concern. States like Florida and Texas are large. They have huge school systems. They have market power. And so, when they start to dictate what ideas need to be taken out of a history textbook, you know, what episodes can be talked about — can you talk about Black Lives Matter? Can you talk about the Black Panther movement? If they say no, that has repercussions.

And I think that’s one of the reasons why we really all need to be concerned about this, whether you’re on the left or the right. These are fundamental free speech issues. They’re ideologically motivated, state-sponsored bans and prohibition on speech, kind of exactly striking to the heart of what the First Amendment gets at. And we all have a stake in it, because, as you say, a ban in Florida can affect students all over the country. When textbook manufacturers and book publishers become cautious, they start to worry: “Who’s going to object? Are these books going to be accepted? Are they going to get bought? Maybe we ought to be more cautious and circumspect about what we include here.” And that, you know, for an educational system that is supposed to prepare kids for a diverse society, a complex society, to be able to grapple with all sorts of ideas, narratives and people, we’re really doing them a disservice.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Kellie Carter Jackson into this conversation, professor of Africana studies at Wellesley College, author of the award-winning book Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. Your recent piece for CNN is titled “Why historians like me are taking on Ron DeSantis.” She’s just returned from St. Petersburg, Florida, where she participated in a 24-hour teach-in with other historians. Can you talk about why you went to Florida for this teach-in? And what is happening to Black history, not only in Florida right now, but how it’s being taught — or not taught — around the country?

KELLIE CARTER JACKSON: Sure. I was happy to respond to the call when Dr. Terry Scott and Yohuru Williams organized this event through the Institute of Common Power, and they said, “We’re doing a 24-hour teach-in. We want scholars and teachers and educators from all over the country to come to Florida to let people know that the stakes are high, that this matters, that all of our livelihoods are at risk when we think about the erasure and the marginalization that comes along with a lot of Ron DeSantis’s policies.” So, as a historian, I know how much history matters. I know that the world that we live in today is shaped by the past, shaped by policy of the past, shaped by decisions people have made. And so, it was really important for me to come and to teach.

I taught at 11 p.m. at night. It went literally for 24 hours. There were people teaching at 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. And I took a course that I normally teach in about 12 weeks, and shrunk it down to about 45 minutes and just talked about why Black history matters. And I went from the great western kingdoms of Mali and Ghana and Songhai all the way up into the present and just talked about how meaningful African American contributions are, that we can’t discuss major events, major turning points, without talking about Black people, without talking about women, without talking about LGBTQ people. So, it was so important to be there, and I’m glad that we did it. I really wanted people to get mobilized, to get educated first, but then take that education and let it empower them to really respond and react to what DeSantis is doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Black history classes, AP courses, and what’s happened there, how they have been changed, and how the College Board has been working with — though they originally denied it — going back and forth with the Florida Department of Education to make their AP course acceptable to Governor DeSantis’s Department of Education.

KELLIE CARTER JACKSON: You know, it’s a real battle, because oftentimes African American history is taught like an elective. It’s not taught as a core requirement. So, when people see Black history, when they see ethnic history as something that’s tangential, as something that’s maybe superficial, they don’t see it as a requirement for going to college. They don’t see it as a requirement as part of their K-through-12 education.

And so, when the College Board put together this African American history course, they called on scholars from all over the country and said, “Help us shape this curriculum. Help us show why it has value and meaning, and what it can add to the students who take this course, what it can add to their intellectual and emotional learning.” And so, I was a part of that task force. A lot of other scholars were, as well.

And it was really disheartening to see how censored and chipped away the curriculum was. There were things like intersectionality that were not being able to be discussed, the idea of multiple oppressions and multiple intersections of one’s identity. There were things about Black Lives Matter that were completely taken off the textbooks, as well, and certain scholars and activists who were being marginalized or erased from the curriculum, too. And this is a problem for us, because you can’t teach Black history without teaching these concepts, without talking about people like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison or Audre Lorde or Kimberlé Crenshaw, for that matter.

And so, these things are still at play. We’re still pushing to make sure that the curriculum is being taught. But these laws require a certain kind of savviness in order to get around some of these restrictions.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to Governor DeSantis, who’s supposedly announcing for president this week, saying that “Florida is where woke goes to die”?

KELLIE CARTER JACKSON: Yeah, this is a real problem for me. I think that — you know, I live in Massachusetts, and I think people look at Florida, and they’re like, “What are they doing there? This is crazy.” But I’m concerned. I’m concerned that DeSantis will become, you know, the proverbial “Simon says,” that instead of creating these wild and outrageous policy infrastructures in Florida, that he will take this to the entire country and that all of the country will look like Florida. And for me, that’s really disturbing, because it disempowers people. It makes people afraid of things that they ought not to be afraid of.

I think that DeSantis is doing a lot of fearmongering, and he’s stirring up strife in people where I think there is not a lot of division. I think all people want their children to be educated, to have access to books to read, to be able to learn as much as they possibly can. All parents should want their children to be critical thinkers. And I think that DeSantis is really trying to push back hard against that. And I think it’s going to have a backlash. I really think at the national level it is going to backfire.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to Governor DeSantis’s bill that prohibits public schools and private businesses from making people feel discomfort and guilt, as we talk about the erasing of Black Lives Matter movement or even issues of slavery and reparations?

KELLIE CARTER JACKSON: Even that is sort of absurd to me, because when I teach this history in my classrooms, certainly, students feel a certain level of empathy — as they should — when we talk about things like slavery and segregation. But most importantly, I want them to understand the causes of this, the consequences of this, how we work to not repeat this anymore. I also think that if I’m talking about my own Black children, I would also want them to be taught in a way that does not make them feel small, that does not make them feel like their identity as an African American child does not matter. So we have to find ways to be more inclusive, not less inclusive, in talking about these histories that matter to all of us and that make America what America is.

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