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Does a Florida Law Impose Felony Charges on Educators Using Unapproved Books?

A new Florida law, HB 1467, places restrictions on what books can be displayed in a classroom library.

Published Feb 1, 2023

 (SOPA Images via Getty Images)
Image Via SOPA Images via Getty Images

On Jan. 31, 2023, the Washington Post published a story suggesting, in part, that Florida teachers were told to hide books from their students to protect themselves from felony charges, large fines, and even jail time arising from a recently passed law — HB 1467 — championed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

That reporting generated significant controversy, with supporters of DeSantis suggesting that the new law — which mandates specific requirements for, and training surrounding the selection of, educational materials in school libraries and classroom collections — had been mischaracterized.

In this article, Snopes explores the facts behind the controversy.

Reports of Teachers Being Told to Hide Books Are Factual

The Post's reporting focused on directives issued to teachers in two Florida school districts — in Manatee and Duval counties — telling them to cover or remove books from their classroom that had not been approved by a certified media specialist:

School officials in at least two counties, Manatee and Duval, have directed teachers this month to remove or wrap up their classroom libraries, according to records obtained by The Washington Post. The removals come in response to fresh guidance issued by the Florida Department of Education in mid-January, after the State Board of Education ruled that a law restricting the books a district may possess applies not only to schoolwide libraries but to teachers' classroom collections, too.

These directives, it should be noted, came from officials in those districts interpreting the laws passed by the Florida State Legislature, and not from the State Department of Education or DeSantis. That officials suggested educators cover books, however, is not subject to debate. A video created for educators in the Duval district, narrated by that county's chief academic officer, explicitly suggested covering up books:

In the meantime, books not on the district approved list or not approved by a certificated media specialist, need to be covered or stored and paused for student use.

A Manatee county official also confirmed that this recommendation was made in a National Review article supposedly debunking the concept:

[The official] denied that teachers were instructed to remove or cover their classroom libraries entirely. However, when questioned by a reporter over the weekend, he produced a second memo, "Building Classroom Libraries — Secondary," that he said he hadn't previously been aware of. It did instruct teachers to "Remove or cover all classroom libraries until all materials can be reviewed."

HB 1467 Does Not Impose Felony Penalties

A central complaint from supporters of DeSantis and conservative media is the implication that this new law imposes felony penalties on teachers for non-compliance.

Strictly speaking, it is true that the bill does not impose penalties on educators. The text of HB 1467 does not impose any penalties. It instead mandates that only approved books be included in any school or classroom library, and that approval must come from a certified media specialist.

Instead, supporters of the law argue, the potential for criminal penalties stems from a pre-existing law that prohibits anyone — not just educators — from distributing pornographic material to minors. That law, Florida statute 847.012, states in part that:

A person may not knowingly sell, rent, or loan for monetary consideration to a minor … any book, pamphlet, magazine, printed matter however reproduced, or sound recording that contains any matter defined in s. 847.001, explicit and detailed verbal descriptions or narrative accounts of sexual excitement, or sexual conduct and that is harmful to minors. … Any person violating any provision of this section commits a felony of the third degree.

The National Review article makes this argument:

There appears to be confusion over what books or materials could actually lead to a criminal charge. The new school transparency law, HB 1467, does not address penalties. But a separate Florida law that deals with the distribution of "harmful materials" to minors, indicates that it is a felony to provide kids with "explicit" materials — depictions or recordings of "nudity or sexual conduct, sexual excitement, sexual battery, bestiality, or sadomasochistic abuse."

It is not a new law … and it doesn't just apply to schools. It is illegal in Florida for a teacher — or any adult — to provide harmful or pornographic materials to minors. And it was illegal last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.

This fact does not mean that educators were not explicitly warned about facing a third-degree felony in their handling of their classroom libraries. In multiple cases, as part of training surrounding HR 1467, educators were reminded of the felony penalties contained in Florida statute 847.012.

At Least Some Counties' HR 1467 Training Explicitly Warned of Felony Charges

Educators were explicitly warned of the potential for third-degree felony charges as part of communications regarding HR 1467. As reported, even, in the National Review:

In mid January, in response to the new state law [HR 1467], leaders of the Manatee County school district, south of Tampa, sent guidance to their teachers and staff about their classroom libraries. Kevin Chapman, the district's chief of staff, told National Review their intent was to direct teachers to temporarily remove any unvetted books from their classroom libraries until they could be approved by a trained media specialist. And there was urgency, he claimed, based on an existing law that said "if there was an inappropriate book found in a school, that person or persons could be charged with a third-degree felony."

A video produced by Duval County public schools also cites third-degree felony penalties as part of their introduction to HR 1467. In that video, the chief academic officer for Duval County explained:

Pornography defined in the Miriam Webster dictionary is the depiction of erotic behavior, as in pictures or writing intended to cause sexual excitement. Florida statute 847.012 further describes this and that any person violating any provision of this section commits a felony in the third degree.

The Bottom Line

HB 1467 does not, itself, impose felony penalties on educators for leaving unapproved books in their classroom collections, nor does it explicitly require any educator to cover the library with paper or anything of that nature. However, training materials provided at the county level for the express purpose of educating teachers on the new law explicitly recommended covering unapproved books and warned of third-degree felony penalties for the distribution of books deemed harmful to children under a pre-existing anti-pornography law.

Sources

Classroom Libraries'. www.youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ss3pVTRwEqI. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.

District Taking Further Steps to Comply with Florida Laws on Library Books – Team Duval News. https://www.teamduval.org/2023/01/23/district-taking-further-steps-to-comply-with-florida-laws-on-library-books/. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.

"Hide Your Books to Avoid Felony Charges, Fla. Schools Tell Teachers." Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2023/01/31/florida-hide-books-stop-woke-manatee-county-duval-county-desantis/. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.

House Bill 1467 (2022) - The Florida Senate. https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2022/1467/. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.

Kornick, Lindsay. "WaPo Fearmongers about 'felony Charges' for Teachers under DeSantis' Rules, Later Clarifies Report." Fox News, 31 Jan. 2023, https://www.foxnews.com/media/wapo-fearmongers-felony-charges-teachers-desantis-rules-later-clarifies-report.

Statutes & Constitution :View Statutes : Online Sunshine. http://www.leg.state.fl.us/Statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&URL=0800-0899/0847/Sections/0847.012.html. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.

---. http://www.leg.state.fl.us/Statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=0800-0899/0847/Sections/0847.001.html. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.

"The Truth behind the Great Florida Classroom Library Freak-Out." National Review, 31 Jan. 2023, https://www.nationalreview.com/news/the-truth-behind-the-great-florida-classroom-library-freakout/.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.