Florida Teachers Are Emptying Classroom Libraries to Avoid Going to Jail

A new statewide policy is telling teachers to cover or remove books from shelves until they are reviewed—or potentially face felony charges.
Rows of empty library shelves in a Florida school library
Image via Twitter

School teachers in Florida have begun removing entire shelves of books from their classrooms after a new policy said they could be charged with felonies for exposing students to books that are considered “pruriant” or “offensive.”

Earlier this month, teachers in Manatee County, Florida were sent directives from the school district to “remove or cover all classroom libraries until all materials can be reviewed” in order to comply with a new rule voted on by the Florida Department of Education, according to an internal document obtained by Motherboard.


“I had plans to remove access to my library on Monday,” a Florida teacher in Manatee County told Motherboard on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from their employer. “By 10 a.m. Monday morning, my library has been covered and made inaccessible to students as per the document.” 

Chris Guerrieri, who runs an education blog and has been a teacher at Duval County Public Schools in Florida for over two decades, says he has received dozens of messages from Florida teachers who have either received an official direction to clear out their classroom bookshelves, or have already done so in anticipation of receiving one.

“I got an email from an art teacher who said they're making [the art teacher] get rid of [their] art books,” Guerrieri told Motherboard. “They can’t even have their books in the classroom. Like they can't just like, cover them up and put them to the side.”

The Florida Department of Education defines harmful books as those which "appeal to a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest" and are "without serious literary artistic, political, or scientific value for minors."

The Florida Department of Education defines harmful books as those which "appeal to a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest" and are "without serious literary artistic, political, or scientific value for minors."

A school administrator tried to walk back the district’s directive during a school board meeting last Tuesday, insisting that teachers hadn’t actually been told to cover their shelves and leaving out any mention of the potential felony charge if a parent decided to challenge any of the books based on the new rule. 


Representatives from the School District of Manatee County did not respond to a request for comment.

The notices follow the passage of a controversial law signed by Florida governor Ron DeSantis last year, which requires each book made available or assigned to students in schools to be selected by a school district employee who holds a valid “educational media specialist” certificate. The new rule is part of a training policy for school librarians which was recently approved by the Florida Board of Education after months of campaigning on the part of right-wing groups such as Moms for Liberty, which have strategically placed their members on school boards across the state

The law also creates liability for teachers who “knowingly or unknowingly” provide access to a book that is deemed harmful to a minor, allowing them to be charged with a third degree felony. According to a Florida Department of Education training document, material that is “harmful to minors” is defined as any book with depictions that “Predominantly appeal to a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest” and that is “patently offensive” and “without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”


How those terms are interpreted can vary greatly from one school to the next. Some groups and lawmakers are trying to expand these definitions of “harmful” to include any books with LGBTQ characters and themes.

“We have a huge Moms For Liberty chapter in this area who would love to find a reason to target teachers who don’t buy into their fascist mentality,” the teacher from Manatee county added. “The only alternative to closing my library is going book by book to make sure each book is listed in our district library catalog. I have hundreds of books in my library. I haven’t had hours and hours to sit and do that this week. So my books remain inaccessible until I have the time to do that and remove any books that aren’t in the catalog.” 

In response to the directive, Florida teachers began posting pictures and videos of their empty classroom bookshelves to personal accounts and private online groups in an effort to get the word out. Some of these posts were then shared more publicly in a Twitter thread by Willie Carver Jr., a former English teacher in Kentucky who says he left the profession last summer after witnessing firsthand the censorship efforts happening in schools in his home state. 


“I feel like we’re increasingly asking teachers to do immoral things like out students, refuse to use a student’s correct gender [and] pronouns, [exclude] Black voices or queer voices from the curriculum or not allow LGBTQ students to have equal access to books,” Carver told Motherboard. 

As Motherboard previously reported, schools in some states have enacted book bans that specifically target titles by Black and LGBTQ+ authors, which conservative politicians and groups have described as “pornographic.” When Carver saw the posts from Florida teachers with empty classroom bookshelves, he thought about the queer and transgender students he’s taught over the years, including a former trans student who had recently committed suicide. 

“That was weighing on me,” he said. “When you forbid a word or a concept to the extent that a teacher will go to prison, what you’re really doing is demonizing. You're saying to a student that what you are is so bad, your teacher would go to jail. I don’t understand how, in good conscience, people are enacting rules like this, especially when they consider the effect it will have on the children in the room.”

Jen Cousins, director of advocacy and outreach for the Florida Freedom to Read Project, says that the new classroom book rules, compounded by other laws that affect educators in the state, have teachers looking for jobs in other states or fields because they’re “scared as shit” of how it might affect their professional lives. 


“Teachers have said, like, who wants to have a target on their back like that,” Cousins told Motherboard. “And then especially, you go to apply for another job, and oh, I was fired because I supposedly provided porn to a student. How are you going to get another job even after that?”

The directives in Florida are the latest efforts to more tightly control what reading material teachers and school librarians can provide to their students. In the first month of 2023, 17 bills have been proposed across 13 states that would allow for civil and criminal prosecution of librarians, educators, higher education faculty, and museum professionals. If successful, librarians and free speech advocates worry these proposals will cause a legal domino effect that limits millions of American students’ ability to read and think for themselves. 

“They’re just redefining [obscenity] down to say, if it has any of this, this or this, it's obscene and you can pull it, where that wouldn't pass federal muster,” Peter Bromberg, associate director of the political action committee EveryLibrary told Motherboard. “And so it really would take a lawsuit to address this, and it would have to work its way through the courts.”

Joe Rector, director of the James River Valley Library System in Jamestown, North Dakota says that these proposals make it harder for librarians to do their jobs. In his home state of North Dakota, a recent bill proposes to jail public librarians for stocking books with “sexually explicit” materials, defining sexually explicit material as “deviant sexual intercourse,” “sadomasochistic abuse,” “sexual perversion,” “sexual identity,” and/or “gender identity.”

“We're trying to serve the public in a way that's professional and in a way that respects the wide range of opinions and beliefs and information needs in our communities,” Rector told Motherboard. “These bills make it very difficult to make normal librarian choices, because we don't know when we might be overstepping, and when we might be putting ourselves at risk of possibly even going to jail.”