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Did a Florida School District Remove Dictionaries from Libraries?

More than 1,600 titles were temporarily removed from Escambia County school libraries over fears they depicted or described sexual conduct.

Published Jan 11, 2024

Updated Jan 11, 2024
 (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Image Via Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

In January 2024, reports emerged that a Florida school district had "banned" dictionaries from libraries in order to be compliant with a state law that allows parents to challenge educational materials they believe contain sexual content.

The rumor took aim at Escambia County Public Schools, a district that covers the Pensacola area, and how it was responding to HB 1069, the law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May 2023.

While it was inaccurate to say district officials "banned" dictionaries, including Webster’s Dictionary & Thesaurus for Students, they did temporarily remove them from school libraries. They temporarily removed them to review their content for anything inappropriate, according to the district.

As of this writing, it was unknown whether that compliance review was finished, and/or if dictionaries were accessible to the district's students via school libraries. We asked these questions of a district spokesperson, who provided us with this statement from Escambia County Public Schools Superintendent Keith Leonard:

I want to clarify that our district has not imposed a ‘ban’ on over 1600 books. Additionally, the dictionary has not been banned in our district. Any claims suggesting otherwise are inaccurate and should be disregarded. It is regrettable, yet not unexpected, that certain media outlets choose to sensationalize this situation. Our school district, and especially our dedicated media specialists, remain committed to adhering to all statutes and regulations, while also providing valuable and varied literacy opportunities for every student.

Among other things, HB 1069 created a formalized process for parents to challenge educational materials. The law states that each school district is responsible for educational materials they use, including books in school libraries. That said, the law's lack of clarity over what constitutes acceptable educational material, as well as its provision giving parents the ability to challenge school materials, created anxiety and confusion across Florida education.

In response to the law's passing, Escambia County Public Schools passed an emergency measure in June 2023 that preemptively removed more than 1,000 titles from its school libraries pending an internal review of their content, as reported by Popular Information (a newsletter authored by journalist Judd Legum) on Jan. 10, 2024.

Popular Information reported:

HB 1069 gives residents the right to demand the removal of any library book that "depicts or describes sexual conduct," as defined under Florida law, whether or not the book is pornographic. Rather than considering complaints, the Escambia County School Board adopted an emergency rule last June that required the district's librarians to conduct a review of all library books and remove titles that may violate HB 1069.

Legum's reporting followed the Jan. 9, 2024, release of a list of books purportedly affected by that June directive. That list was published online by the advocacy group Florida Freedom to Read, which opposes HB 1069, and was supposedly up to date as of Dec. 10, 2023. It included five dictionaries, as reported by PEN America:

Five dictionaries are on the district’s list of more than 1,600 books banned pending investigation in December 2023, along with eight different encyclopedias, The Guinness Book of World Records, and Ripley’s Believe it or Not – all due to fears they violate the state’s new laws banning materials with “sexual conduct” from schools.  

In a statement published by the Pensacola News Journal on Jan. 11, 2024, district spokesperson Cody Strother said the books on the Florida Freedom to Read's list "have not been banned or removed from the school district" but "have simply been pulled for further review to ensure compliance with the new legislation."

However, as the rumor about dictionaries spread online, a shorter, updated list of books under review by district officials was published by Florida Freedom to Read. That updated list, which was supposedly current, as of Jan. 11, did not include the aforementioned dictionaries. Possibly, that meant dictionaries had passed the internal review and could return to library shelves.

Snopes has fact-checked other rumors about books supposedly "banned" in Florida schools in light of the state's push to give parents more authority over educational materials. In 2022, for example, a "banned books" list including "The Color Purple," "A Wrinkle in Time," and "The Catcher in the Rye" went viral. It was intended to be satirical.

Sources

“1,600+ Escambia School Library Books Pulled for Review, Including Dictionaries. See the List:” Pensacola News Journal, https://www.pnj.com/story/news/local/education/2024/01/11/escambia-schools-pull-1600-books-florida-freedom-to-read-project-says/72169101007/. Accessed 11 Jan. 2024.

“Committee Substitute for Committee Substitute for House Bill No. 1069.” Laws of Florida.

“Florida Freedom to Read Project.” Florida Freedom to Read Project, https://www.fftrp.org/. Accessed 11 Jan. 2024.

“Florida School District Pulls over 1,600 Books for Review to Possibly Be Banned — Including Dictionaries.” NBC News, 11 Jan. 2024, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/florida-school-district-pulls-1600-books-review-possibly-banned-dictio-rcna133436.

House Bill 1069 (2023) - The Florida Senate. https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2023/1069. Accessed 11 Jan. 2024.

Legum, Judd. Florida School District Removes Dictionaries from Libraries, Citing Law Championed by DeSantis. https://popular.info/p/florida-school-district-removes-dictionaries. Accessed 11 Jan. 2024.

Tolin, Lisa. “More than 1,600 Books Banned in Escambia County, Florida.” PEN America, 9 Jan. 2024, https://pen.org/escambia-county-florida-banned-books-list/.

“Website Destiny HB 1069 Storage Further Review.” Google Docs, https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1dwSpSRyR1ejSLC5OBj3qzO8xQRgydTcImmbjNZysEuM/edit?usp=embed_facebook. Accessed 11 Jan. 2024.

Updates

UPDATE [Jan. 11, 2024]: Added statement from Escambia County Public Schools Superintendent Keith Leonard.

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

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