How a Book Gets Banned in America

Documents show the step-by-step process that gets a book banned from schools: All it takes is an anonymous letter, a principal underlining words like “condom,” and some poorly written policies.

Politicians and right-wing groups have recently stepped up efforts to remove books by Black and LGBTQ+ authors from school libraries across the US, and in some cases they’re succeeding

Now, a glimpse into one Florida school district’s book banning process shows how poorly written policies, administrators in positions of power, and a lack of understanding of Florida’s statutes make it easy to have books permanently removed from library shelves—especially titles that reflect the experiences of marginalized people.

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Documents obtained through a public records request and reviewed by Motherboard tell a story about how a high school principal took it upon herself to introduce a challenge to the book All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson. The events which led to the book being banned began after an undisclosed group inquired about whether any of the Clay County District Schools’ libraries carried the title. 

The documents—which were originally requested by Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney at the free speech and education group FIRE—detail how Ridgeview High School Principal Becky Murphy took it upon herself to investigate the title and begin the process of having it removed. After receiving the unnamed group’s letter, Murphy filed a review request and called a Curriculum Council meeting in which she provided evidence to the council by underlining essentially anything that even alluded to sex, including the word “condom.” The documents also include a slide presentation given in defense of the book, with quotes from the district's policies, a listing of awards All Boys Aren't Blue has won, excerpts from reviews of the book, a screenshot of the book's Goodreads review, as well as a "Final Defense" that includes quotes from Johnson about the importance of the book.

A photo of a Kindle e-reader where the principal underlined sections involving descriptions of sex.

Murphy’s objections to the book were that “explicit sexual descriptions” from two chapters of the book would be recommendable for mature audiences, but not appropriate for minors in a public school library setting. Media specialist Julie Miller, referred to as “Librarian Miller” in the curriculum meeting minutes, who also read the book, noted that “while the book did give her pause for the sexually explicit scenes found in Chapter 15, she believed it did not meet the qualifications to be pulled from the library collection.” 

All Boys Aren’t Blue is a young adult non-fiction title intended for both allies and young queer men of color. The book has been both celebrated and criticized for how it covers topics like gender identity, toxic masculinity, and consent in sexual situations. It was the third most challenged book in 2021 according to the American Library Association for “LGBTQIA+ content, profanity, and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.” The book has previously been banned in school districts and libraries in at least eight states

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In the Curriculum meeting, Miller stated that “while it is not a requirement for the district’s review or reconsideration of materials, she felt each person on the council should read the book before making a decision,” though this isn’t a district requirement. 

“This is not customary and goes against the standards in FL statute 847.012 that requires a work to be taken as a whole before determining if it is harmful to minors,” Stephana Ferrell, a founding member of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, told Motherboard. “Anyone tasked with reviewing a book and determining if it is “harmful to minors” under FL law should read the book in its entirety.” 

Neither Murphy nor the Clay County District Schools provided comment before the publication of this story. 

The ban comes amidst a wave of conservative backlash against titles about racism and LGBTQ+ topics in schools, with some groups like Moms For Liberty pushing to replace the books with conservative and explicitly anti-gay titles. 

A PEN America report from April found that most school districts where books were being banned are not following best practices. Jonathan Friedman, the director of Free Expression and Education at PEN America says this happens either one of two ways. 

“One, the school district follows their policy but the policy is not really a best practice policy, or the school district has a best practice policy but they don’t follow it,” Friedman told Motherboard. “98 percent of book bans we tracked from July 2021 to March 2022 had something about them that did not meet best practices.” 

A scan from a slide presentation by school librarians against the removal of All Boys Aren't Blue

Friedman says that best practice looks like a diverse review committee that reads the book prior to the meeting. However, the Clay County School District curriculum meeting minutes show that despite the school media specialist’s recommendation that all council members read the book, the council voted anyway. It is unclear from the minutes whether those who voted read the book in its entirety or if their opinions were based on the evidence, particularly the excerpts presented. 

“Then we have an objection from a principal who obviously now is in a position of power here and so if the principal is suggesting this book is pornographic … number one, who read the book and how does that influence this, and number two, who filed the complaint, a principal versus an ordinary citizen,” Friedman explained. “Even though [the principal] recused herself from the minutes, it’s clear that her assessment rules the day and influenced everyone.”

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Organizations like PEN America and the Florida Freedom to Read Project are concerned about the way school districts are interpreting state statutes in book challenge cases. On the request for reconsideration form, Miller indicates that the descriptive nature of the sexual activity in the book does go against the wording of Florida state statutes, though indicating that there is a distinction between “obscene” and “pornographic” that is being confused frequently in cases such as this. 

Ferrell says it has more to do with district leaders feeling political pressure to address the presence of explicit excerpts in a swift fashion to show they will not knowingly condone “pornography” being made available in the schools.

“They, whether knowingly or unknowingly, are taking steps outside of their documented process in an effort to appear unbiased not realizing the process is written to ensure the district cannot be accused of infringing on First Amendment rights to access information,” Ferrell said.

Adam Steinbaugh, who submitted the records request, said it’s one of many he’s sent to Florida school districts. He submitted the request as a way to get a better sense of the formal and informal book challenge landscape. 

“It's important for the public to have an oversight function into what is going on within educational institutions,” Steinbaugh told Motherboard. “That's sort of been the ostensible purpose of a lot of the objections to books, but it works on the flipside to people should know what the objections are, and they should understand that the furor over the material being in school libraries is an effort to restrict what other people can read.”

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