(NEW YORK) — Students returning to school in Escambia County, FL found limited access to books, due to a system-wide review of school and classroom libraries to identify books with “sexual conduct,” according to recent reports that quote current Schools Superintendent Keith Leonard. PEN America said reports of empty bookshelves— or nearly so— are reminiscent of an “authoritarian dystopia.”

The Escambia County Public Schools system directed schools to conduct the review ahead of the new school year, ostensibly as an effort to comply with a new law, HB 1069. The impact of the review, in the words of Leonard, is that students will have “limited access” and ”limited selection” to books in schools as the new school year gets underway. Schools opened Thursday.

“Censorship of books is abounding in Florida,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program. “Lacking official state guidance, school districts have been left to determine how best to comply with vague legislation–allowing the state to dodge accountability for authoring and passing the laws in the first place. While the interim superintendent may claim that libraries remain open, it is clear that the district’s sweeping undertaking–an act of censorship not mirrored by other districts, yet apparently induced by concerns about compliance with HB 1069–will result in drastically reduced access to literature for all Escambia students. Empty library shelves serve as a stark symbol of the dangers of government overreach: until now, library purges have been the province of communist dictatorships and authoritarian dystopias. Now they have taken over Escambia, Florida.”

The reviews led some schools to close their libraries; at one school administrators posted a sign in their school library reading: “Dear Grown Ups, unfortunately our school library and classroom library will be closed when school starts,” citing the school district’s “clearing procedure” for HB 1069 compliance as the basis for the closure. While the closures appear to be intended as temporary, a staff training video obtained by the Florida Freedom to Read Project included a timeline which suggested that the review of books may not be complete until May 2024.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org 

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057