(MIAMI)— Three years into Gov. Ron DeSantis’ and the Florida Legislature’s aggressive legislative push to upend basic rights— the freedom to read, learn, and speak, among others—cracks are appearing amid a groundswell of activism against these unpopular and nakedly discriminatory and censorious bills, according to a new white paper by PEN America.

The analysis, produced by PEN America’s Florida office, acknowledges that there is substantial cause for optimism that the Florida government’s campaign of censorship is losing steam, with both legislative and court victories over pernicious censorship laws. But only sustained resistance can permanently beat back the attack on free expression, the report states.

The white paper, Cracks in the Facade: Lessons Learned from Florida’s Ongoing Censorship Campaign, underscores the damage from this campaign by DeSantis and his allies in the Legislature: “Overall, the result is a rights rollback on a substantive scale, one that affects everyday Floridians across the state,” it states.

Katie Blankenship, director of PEN America’s Florida office, said: “By continuing to pass bills that are a knife to the heart of our Constitutional protections, Florida lawmakers are not only willing to attack the rights that Americans hold sacred but they are also wasting taxpayer dollars to try to uphold them. As these costs to the taxpayer continue to mount, responsible legislators will hopefully realize that they are burning their constituents’ money and trust.”

Florida’s censorious laws and policies have taken aim against the freedom to read, learn, and teach in schools resulting in more book bans than any other state, and targeting educational efforts to address systemic sexism and racism.

The campaign has sparked opposition that has united disparate groups, starting with the reaction to laws passed in 2022— the Parental Rights in Education Act (known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law) and the Individual Freedom Act, or the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (Stop W.O.K.E.) Act.

But the 2024 Florida legislative session showed signs that this censorious trend is facing increasing resistance. A number of  bills introduced this session bore stark thematic similarities to censorious legislation passed since 2021. Collectively, they threatened the rights of minors to access and disseminate constitutionally protected speech, instilled further censorship in Florida public schools, undermined freedom of the press, and infringed on Floridians’ rights to self expression and to peacefully assemble and protest.

Unlike in previous sessions, however, many major bills  failed to pass or passed only after significant changes.  Others that passed are likely to face swift legal challenges.

Florida’s laws promoting government-sponsored censorship inspired copycat legislation in dozens of states, as opponents of these laws responded with legal challenges in Florida and elsewhere. Recent court wins in Florida have struck down some of the most harmful bills of years past, reducing their impact on schools, campuses, workplaces, and on Floridians overall. But the harm inflicted across public education continues, with the cost of defending against lawsuits borne by taxpayers at a cost of many millions of dollars. (In 2022, defending against 15 different lawsuits cost Florida taxpayers roughly $17 million; the next year, the Legislature allocated almost $16 million for litigation costs to defend policies DeSantis had advanced that year.)

The white paper stated: “The importance of striking these laws down in court cannot be overstated…. The current batch of litigation against many of Florida’s censorious bills, along with the fate of copycat bills across the county, shows that this backstop is holding, at least as it pertains to First Amendment concerns.”

Beyond court victories, the white paper reports that success in beating back some of the most harmful bills is due to a confluence of factors: the growing grassroots movement, DeSantis’ changing political fortunes, and the weakening of Moms for Liberty, Florida Citizen Alliance, and other allied conservative groups, which have led book banning campaigns in the state.

The groups’ responsibility for mass book banning has faced significant public pushback as parents, teachers, school board members, and students appear to be growing tired with the groups’ opposition to discussing LGBTQ+ identities and issues and race and diversity in classrooms.

The white paper concludes: “Between the administration’s flagship bills failing to pass the legislature, failing in the courts, failing to strike a cord with voters, and DeSantis’ failed presidential bid, there is mounting evidence that discriminatory and censorious policies are proving politically toxic. What this means for DeSantis’s willingness to pursue his agenda of censorship-as-policy remains to be seen, but offers new opportunities for opponents of censorship to turn the tide.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free 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. Learn more at pen.org.

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