Cracks in the Facade

Lessons Learned From Florida’s Ongoing Censorship Campaign

Over the past three years, Florida has endured an invasive and far reaching attack on rights to free speech and expression. This has resulted in Florida banning more books than any other state in the country,1“PEN America Index Of School Book Bans – 2022-2023,” PEN America, accessed March 22, 2024, as well as the passage of legislation and policy that has undermined academic freedom, created a culture of fear and self-censorship, and sowed chaos and division in Florida’s public education system.2See Ryan Howzell and James Tager, “The Florida Effect: How the Sunshine State is Driving the Conservative Agenda on Free Expression,” PEN America, November 28, 2023,

Governor Ron DeSantis and his allies in the Florida state legislature have championed these laws and policies under the banners of freedom, democracy, and “parental rights.” The DeSantis administration has chosen to wage a self-described “war on woke,” with the avowed goal of protecting everyday citizens from being forced to accept specific ideologies.3Kimberly Leonard, “Florida’s evolving war on ‘woke’,” Politico, February 9, 2024, Conservative activist groups like Moms for Liberty have pursued an aggressive book-banning agenda within the state while claiming the mantle of “freedom.”4See e.g. “Moms for Liberty Is Waging War on LGBTQ and Race-Inclusive Books,” GLAAD, November 3, 2023,

Yet the results of these policies are worlds away from the rhetoric. Today, Florida has both the largest number of books banned in the country and the most school districts engaging in book banning.5“PEN America Index Of School Book Bans – 2022-2023,” PEN America, accessed March 22, 2024, Several of Florida’s most far-reaching laws—laws the DeSantis Administration has championed as signature achievements—have been nakedly discriminatory and censorious. This includes bills like the Parental Rights in Education Act (known broadly 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.6Ryan Howzell and James Tager, “The Florida Effect: How the Sunshine State is Driving the Conservative Agenda on Free Expression,” PEN America, November 28, 2023, The overall result is a rights rollback on a substantive scale, one that affects everyday Floridians across the state.

More than three years in, cracks are beginning to emerge in this facade; strategies rooted in censorship and the weakening of public education are proving damaging and unpopular. What remains unclear is whether these cracks will precipitate a true turning of the tide, or merely the prelude to a more aggressive censorship-minded policy. 

This white paper will explore how Florida arrived at this place; the first signs of progress in reversing this rights rollback; and where we can hope and expect Florida to go from here. As W.E.B. DuBois famously said, “As the South goes, so goes the nation.” Florida should be considered in this vein, and as a key component in understanding the current national political environment.

Key Takeaways

  • The Florida legislature continues to pass blatantly unconstitutional and discriminatory bills, despite the fact that they will surely face legal challenges and waste millions in taxpayer dollars.


  • These bills are part of Governor Ron DeSantis’s “culture war” campaign and specifically target expression of and about LGBTQ+ people and people of color, creating a culture of fear and chilled speech.


  • Florida-based coalitions are fighting back. This campaign of censorship has produced an advocacy groundswell, bringing together disparate groups to coordinate opposition to the most egregious bills.


  • Florida’s 2024 legislative session has revealed cracks in the facade. While additional censorial bills passed in the 2024 session, many of the worst failed— despite Republican control of the legislature and executive. The success in beating back some of the most harmful bills is due to a confluence of factors that include the growing grassroots movement, Governor DeSantis’s changing political fortunes, and the weakening of Moms for Liberty and other allied groups.


  • Recent court wins have struck down some of the most harmful bills of years past, reducing their impact on schools, workplaces, and everyday Floridians.


  • This is a critical juncture for anti-censorship activists in Florida and sustained resistance will be necessary to permanently roll back the enduring censorship campaign of DeSantis and his allies.

How Did We Get Here?

The past several years have seen Florida operating under one-party governance. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has held his position since 2018; meanwhile, the Republican Party has enjoyed a conservative supermajority in both houses of state Congress since the 2022 midterm elections. This means they do not need any bipartisan support in order to pass legislation and the DeSantis administration has been given wide leeway to push their policy preferences.7Michael Moline, “Republicans extend their domination of the Florida Legislature,” The Florida Phoenix, November 9, 2022, All the while, DeSantis has set his sights on a higher national profile, casting himself as a Trumpist acolyte and pursuing an explicit culture war—replete with charged rhetoric designed to appeal to a conservative base.8Matt Dixon, “DeSantis delivers annual state of state — with an eye to 2024,” Politico, March 7, 2023,; Stephen Collinson, “DeSantis to open presidential bid by out-Trumping Trump,” CNN, May 24, 2023,; Philip Elliot, “Some in GOP See “Woke” Rhetoric as Lazy. Then There’s Ron DeSantis,” TIME, June 7, 2023,

All of this has had substantial ramifications for freedom of expression in Florida. Last year, PEN America found that Florida was the country’s biggest book banner throughout the 2022-23 school year, with the highest number of recorded book bans, in the most districts compared to any other state. Florida had 1,406 bans last school year—over 40% of all cases nationally—in 33 districts. The state with the second-highest number of book bans, Texas, had 625 recorded cases across 12 districts.9Kasey Meehan, Jonathan Friedman, Sabrina Baêta, and Tasslyn Magnusson, “Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor,” PEN America, accessed March 28, 2024,

As a matter of policy, the targets of the DeSantis Administration’s anti-”woke” agenda have included: African American history, diversity policies, education and discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation, LGBTQ+ books, transgender students, and institutional efforts to address systemic sexism and racism.10See e.g. Jocelyn Gecker, “How Ron DeSantis used Florida schools to become a culture warrior,” AP News, August 23, 2023, A major thread uniting all these targets is that they constitute viewpoints and identities disfavored or cast as “indoctrination” by the DeSantis Administration and its supporters in the Florida legislature.11See e.g. “Governor DeSantis Elevates Civil Discourse and Intellectual Freedom in Higher Education,” Office of Florida Governor, January 31, 2023, (“Today, Governor Ron DeSantis announced legislation for the 2023 Session to further elevate civil discourse and intellectual freedom in higher education, further pushing back against the tactics of liberal elites who suppress free thought in the name of identity politics and indoctrination.”) In targeting these viewpoints, Florida’s legislature has passed laws that are best understood as comprehensive censorship mandates.

As DeSantis campaigned for re-election in 2022, he doubled-down on culture war rhetoric, declaring Florida to be the state “where woke goes to die”. This war on “wokeness” became the pillar not only of his gubernatorial reelection but also his 2024 presidential campaign. DeSantis’s announcement was widely heard as a dog whistle12Samuel Perry and Eric Mcdaniel, “Why “Woke” Is A Convenient Republican Dog Whistle,” TIME, January 26, 2023, and declaration of the Governor’s intent to use the machinery of government to execute his vision of discriminatory “culture wars.” This has also provided a rallying cry and road map to other states to follow in Florida’s footsteps.13Ryan Howzell and James Tager, “The Florida Effect: How the Sunshine State is Driving the Conservative Agenda on Free Expression,” PEN America, November 28, 2023, The Florida legislature has been an enthusiastic partner in this, swiftly following DeSantis’s announcements with legislative packages designed to convert the Governor’s preferences into policy.14See Ryan Howzell and James Tager, “The Florida Effect: How the Sunshine State is Driving the Conservative Agenda on Free Expression,” PEN America, November 28, 2023, [“Within the state, the Florida legislature is following the lead of DeSantis. Commentators have cited the governor’s “hand-in-glove” relationship with the legislature as a major driver for both the speed and far-reaching nature of Florida’s new legislation. In the past few years, DeSantis’s policy pronouncements have been commonly and swiftly followed by legislative proposals that seek to enshrine governor’s preferences into law, pushing the limits of executive power for ideological control. In February 2023, for example, DeSantis said at a roundtable that he wanted to make it easier to sue media outlets for defamation.Days later, Florida legislators proposed a law to do just that. Although in this case the legislation died, Governor DeSantis’s wish, it seems, is often the Florida legislature’s command.”]

The Laws that Built the Campaign of Censorship

In recent years, the Florida legislature has pushed through bill after bill that has shrunk the space for freedom of expression and related freedoms in the state. This trend arguably began in 2021 with the introduction of HB 1, a wide-ranging bill that sought to dramatically shrink the space for peaceful-but-disruptive protest.15“CS/HB 1: Combating Public Disorder,” Florida State Senate, April 20, 2021, PEN America concluded at the time that HB 1 was one of the most significant “anti-protest” bills the country had seen in recent years.16Nora Benavidez, James Tager, and Andy Gottlieb, “Closing Ranks: State Legislators Deepen Assaults On The Right To Protest, “ PEN America, May 13, 2021, 2021 also saw the introduction of HB 241, the first bill Florida leadership expressly promoted under what would become the highly influential banner of “parental rights.”17Danielle Brown, “A controversial “Parents’ Bill of Rights”: What is it? And what does it mean for students and families?,” Florida Phoenix, May 6, 2021,

Florida’s censorious policies reached new heights in 2022 with the introduction of two major bills, colloquially referred to as the Stop WOKE Act (HB 7) and the “Don’t Say Gay” law (HB 1557).18“CS/CS/HB 1557: Parental Rights in Education,” Florida State Senate, March 29, 2022,; “CS/HB 7: Individual Freedom,” Florida State Senate, April 22, 2022, These bills—both of which are now law—represent the greatest examples of overreach and censorship seen in the state in recent history, operating in tandem to prohibit discussions and classroom instruction on race, racism, and gender. As PEN America wrote in our 2023 report The Florida Effect, these laws go “well beyond the recognized authority of educational bodies to regulate curricula” and instead employ state authority to discriminate against specific viewpoints, and more broadly, to “destroy the climate of open inquiry required in free and democratic educational institutions.”19Katie Blakenship, James Tager, and Ryan Howzell. “The Florida Effect: How the Sunshine State is Driving the Conservative Agenda on Free Expression,” PEN America, November 28, 2023,

2022 also saw the passage of HB 1467, a law that layered new obligations on school districts, such as a requirement to annually report book challenges to the Commissioner of Education in order to enable the state government to compile and disseminate a list of these objections—essentially creating a statewide list of books to target.20“CS/HB 1467,” 2022 Florida House of Representatives, Accessed March 29, 2024,; “New Florida rule requires school districts to track book challenges,” Tampa Bay Times, May 24, 2023, While HB 1467 was heralded by supporters as a win for parental rights and transparency, as PEN America argued at the time, the law’s most direct effect was to empower book banners across the state.21See “These 4 Florida Bills Censor Classroom Subjects and Ideas,” PEN America, March 17, 2022“ Further, state officials later offered instruction to educators on how to interpret the law, charging them with “erring on the side of caution” when deciding which books to put on shelves—in essence, issuing a state directive to self-censor.22Kerry Sheridan, “Students push back against book bans as the scope of a new Florida law expands,” WUSF NPR, March 6, 2023,; Lisa Tolin, “Florida Book Bans: Why Are There Empty Shelves In Florida Schools?,” PEN America, February 13, 2023,

The effects of these laws have been felt across Florida, and have been complimented by numerous other actions by the Florida board of education. Over a short period of time, the restrictions on teaching about gender and sexuality in HB 1557 were expanded from Kindergarten to 4th grade to cover all grades, through the end of high school.23Steve Contorno, “Florida bans teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation through 12th grade,” CNN, April 19, 2023, State-led efforts to challenge otherwise ordinary aspects of public schooling became routine, like challenging AP African American studies or a widespread review of math textbooks.24Patricia Mazzei and Anemona Hartocollis, “Florida Rejects A.P. African American Studies Class,” The New York Times, January 19, 2023,; Dana Goldstein and Stephanie Saul, “A Look Inside the Textbooks That Florida Rejected,” June 22, 2023, Censorship efforts and a chilled environment have likewise spread across the state in numerous directions, with news stories that have felt at times farcical: efforts to label books in Collier County; placing stickers over goblin butts in Indian River; canceling sex education textbooks in Miami-Dade, only for them to be reinstated two weeks later; a teacher reprimanded for educating students about Michelangelo’s David; and an effort to ban a film about Ruby Bridges in Pinellas County.25Jo Yurcaba, “A Florida school district added a parental ‘advisory notice’ to over 100 books,” NBC News, August 5, 2022,; Tori Otten, “Florida’s War on Books Enters “Goblin Butts Are Sexual” Territory,” The New Republic, February 1, 2024,; Kate Payne, “Miami-Dade school board reverses decision, approves sex ed textbooks,” WLRN, July 29, 2022,; Torey Akers, “Florida school principal fired for showing students Michelangelo’s ‘pornographic’ David sculpture,” The Art Newspaper, March 23, 2023,; Claire Thornton, “Florida school bans Disney movie on civil rights activist because a parent didn’t want her child to learn hatred,” USA Today, March 28, 2023,

The Florida legislature continued down this path of censorship in 2023 with the passage of HB 1069, a key driver of the spike in book bans in Florida.26“CS/CS/HB 1069: Education,” Florida State Senate, May 18, 2023,; Li Cohen, “Florida school district pulls dictionaries and encyclopedias as part of “inappropriate” content review,” CBS News, January 12, 2024, HB 1069 works on several fronts—most relevant to book bans, it broadly expands prohibitions of classroom discussion of gender and sexual identity and creates a statutory book ban process. It also places sweeping restrictions on public school employees, prohibiting them from using their preferred pronouns in front of students if such pronouns “do not correspond to his or her sex.” Since taking effect, Floridians watched one public school district in Charlotte County prohibit books with LGBTQ+ characters in direct response to this law.27Terry Spencer, “Florida school district orders removal of all books with gay characters before slightly backing off,” AP News, September 27, 2023, 

The book ban crisis further escalated on October 13, 2023, when the Florida Department of Education, interpreting HB 1069, released a memo that advised school districts to pull any books from the shelves if someone objected to them on the grounds of a “depiction or description of sexual conduct.”28Paul Burns, “House Bill 1069, K-12 Education, School District Responsibilities,” Florida Department of Education, October 13, 2023, The result was school districts pulling books by the hundreds. In Escambia County, officials pulled an estimated 1600 books from shelves—including the Merriam-Webster’s Elementary Dictionary, which includes words that could potentially violate HB 1069’s almost-comically broad scope of prohibited content (i.e., a definition of “sex” is inherently a “description of sexual conduct”).29Elizabeth Huebeck, “One School District Just Pulled 1,600 Books From Its Shelves—Including the Dictionary,” Education Week, January 24, 2024,

2023 was also the year that Florida legislators introduced SB 266, a bill later signed into law that prohibits public colleges and universities from funding programs or campus activities that “advocate for” Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and that includes prohibitions for funds supporting any “social activism” on campus.30SB 266, 2023 Florida State Senate,

It is from this wave of censorious legislation that the 2024 legislative session began.

What Is Happening This Year?

The 2024 Legislative Session – Wins and Losses

The 2024 Florida legislative session continued the disturbing trend of censorship and discrimination, but not without notable pushback. There were several bills proposed this past session, such as 2024’s HB 1, HB 757, HB 901, HB 1291, and SB 470, that had stark thematic similarities to censorious legislation passed since 2021. Collectively, these five bills jeopardized the rights of minors to access and disseminate constitutionally protected speech, and threatened to instill further censorship in Florida public schools, undermine freedom of the press, and infringe on Floridians’ rights to self expression and to peacefully assemble and protest. While these five are not the only bills with alarming implications for freedom of expression in the state, they are the ones that most centrally threatened such freedom this past session.

Of these five bills, only one, HB 1291, passed in its original form.31“CS/HB 1291: Educator Preparation Programs,” Florida State Senate, March 6, 2024, The remaining four either failed to pass, or passed only after significant amendment. Even HB 1291 is likely to face swift litigation that may invalidate the law entirely as it incorporates the exact same prohibitions as the Stop WOKE Act, currently blocked from enforcement by a federal court.32Becky Sullivan, “With a nod to ‘1984,’ a federal judge blocks Florida’s anti-‘woke’ law in colleges,” NPR, November 18, 2022,; “Florida’s “Stop WOKE” Act Struck Down on Appeal: What Employers Need to Know.” Fisher Phillips, March 11, 2024,

A sixth bill, HB 1285, dealt specifically with book banning and ongoing threats to K-12 education.33“CS/CS/HB 1285: Education,” Florida State Senate, March 7, 2024, HB 1285 has passed the legislature and is before the Governor as of this report. The bill was promoted as a robust educational reform bill to curb book banning, but in fact only includes a single measure to limit book challenges by non-parents in a school district, a measure that is welcome but in the long run will have little impact on the harm being inflicted by HB 1069.34Jackie Llanos, “FL Legislature passes one per month limit on ‘frivolous’ book challenges,” Florida Phoenix, March 7, 2024, It also further solidifies the right to object to material for any texts that “depicts or describes sexual conduct” and does nothing to take the sting out of HB 1069, which is the main reason for the ongoing mass book bans in places like Escambia, Charlotte, and Orange County.35Li Cohen, “Florida school district pulls dictionaries and encyclopedias as part of “inappropriate” content review,” CBS News, January 12, 2024, HB 1285 is a strange bird–in its framing as an anti-book banning measure, it is an important rhetorical concession that book banning in the state has gone too far. But in its effort to shore up the right to object to “sexual” material, it makes clear that Florida legislators are still largely comfortable with developing mechanisms to target and ban books.

The failure of several of the censorious bills from 2024, namely HB 757, HB 1 (in its original form), HB 901, and SB 470, should be compared to years past. Previous bills, like the 2021 HB 1 anti-protest bill, the 2022 Don’t Say Gay bill, and the Stop WOKE Act passed with little resistance in either chamber.36An explanatory note: each session brings a new HB 1, as it designates a priority of the House Speaker. Thus, 2021’s HB 1 is different from 2024’s HB 1. Similarly, HB 1069 and SB 266 both sailed through the 2023 legislative session to land on the Governor’s desk—even while reporting revealed that some legislators had grown frustrated with the Governor’s legislative agenda.37Gary Fineout, “‘Deeply frustrated’: Florida legislators worn out by DeSantis,” Politico, April 20, 2023, The failure of this year’s bills–while far from a clean sweep–stands in contrast to these previous successes.

This failure offers free expression advocates room for cautious optimism. Examining this year’s session reveals the many critical factors at play, working independently and in tandem, to create cracks in this ongoing censorious campaign.

The whole-sale defeats of HB 901, SB 470, and HB 757 represent victories for free speech. The reworking of HB 1 into HB 3 still raises significant constitutional concerns, the passage of HB 1285 includes mild provisions to address rampant book banning, and the passage of HB 1291 represents the ongoing, dogged determination to silence education on race and racism. A review of this record demonstrates that the DeSantis administration and Florida legislature are continuing their legislative campaign of governance-by-censorship. In contrast to previous years, however, this mixed record of bill passage offers some encouraging indications that such a campaign may be hitting increasingly weighty obstacles.

These obstacles include the escalating litigation climate; the waning popularity of DeSantis’s rhetoric, agenda, and policies; and the grassroots resistance to Florida leadership’s censorious agenda. Below, we examine each obstacle in turn.

Beating Laws in Court

The importance of striking these laws down in court cannot be overstated. While the Florida legislature should and must stop passing blatantly unconstitutional laws—and stopping such bills from becoming law is ideal—in the current political climate in Florida, that is often easier said than done. And in those instances, the people rely on the courts as a final backstop. 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.

In March 2024, a historic court settlement relieved some of the most acute harm caused by Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida classrooms from grades K-3, among various other rights-abusive requirements, including provisions which have caused educators to pull books with LGBTQ+ characters from classrooms and school libraries.38“Settlement Allows Teachers To Discuss Sexual Orientation In Florida Classrooms,” PEN America, March 11, 2024,; Matt Lavietes, “Florida schools roll out LGBTQ restrictions as controversial law goes into effect,” TODAY, July 1, 2022,; Jo Yurcaba, “Florida teachers navigate their first year under the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law,” NBC News, August 19, 2022, The settlement requires the Florida Board of Education to instruct all Florida school districts that HB 1557 does not prevent anti-bullying measures, disallow student groups supporting LGBTQ+ individuals, or prohibit teachers and students from discussing LGBTQ+ identity. Critically, the agreement also clarifies that the law does not apply to library books that are not a part of classroom instruction or curricula, and makes clear that the law does not ban “literary references to a gay or transgender person or to a same-sex couple” in classroom material.39“Settlement Allows Teachers To Discuss Sexual Orientation In Florida Classrooms,” PEN America, March 11, 2024,

Also in March 2024, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an injunction of Florida’s Stop WOKE Act in places of employment, finding blatant violations of the First Amendment. The court noted the language of the Stop WOKE Act would mean that “the government could ban pulling chairs into a circle for book clubs discussing disfavored books. And so on. The First Amendment is not so easily neutered.” Inc. v. Governor, No. 22-13135, 2024 WL 909379, at *4 (11th Cir. Mar. 4, 2024)

In 2023, the STOP Woke Act was also enjoined in regards to higher education in Florida. In blocking the law from going into effect in Florida’s universities, a federal judge found the bill was “positively dystopian. It should go without saying that ‘if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”’41Pernell v. Fla. Bd. of Governors of State Univ. Sys., 641 F. Supp. 3d 1218, 1230 (N.D. Fla. 2022) The Florida state government has appealed, and this decision will be heard by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals later this year.

Recent developments in PEN America’s case in Escambia County further indicate the unwillingness of the judiciary to let the state encroach on First Amendment liberties. This case recently survived a motion to dismiss, with the court finding standing for all plaintiffs and rejecting the state’s “government speech doctrine”42The government speech doctrine holds that “although the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause limits government regulation of private speech, it does not restrict the government when the government speaks for itself. In other words, the government is not required to act neutral when expressing its own opinion.” Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. The State of Florida has argued that removing books from library shelves is “government speech” and thus immune from First Amendment scrutiny. Judge Wetherell disagreed. explaining that given “the fact that the traditional purpose of a library is to provide information on a broad range of subjects and viewpoints, the Court simply fails to see how any reasonable person would view the contents of the school library (or any library for that matter) as the government’s endorsement of the views expressed in the books on the library’s shelves.”43The full order is available at “PEN America v. Escambia County School District,” PEN America,

Florida district courts and the Eleventh Circuit are not alone in striking down these types of censorious “culture war” bills. Iowa’s copycat of Florida’s HB 1069, for example, was recently blocked by a federal judge who objected to “the wholesale removal of every book containing a description or visual depiction of a “sex act,” regardless of context. The underlying message is that there is no redeeming value to any such book even if it is a work of history, self-help guide, award-winning novel, or other piece of serious literature. In effect, the Legislature has imposed a puritanical “pall of orthodoxy” over school libraries.44GLBT Youth in Iowa Sch. Task Force v. Reynolds, No. 4:23-CV-00474, 2023 WL 9052113, at 19 (S.D. Iowa Dec. 29, 2023). In other states, numerous cases have been filed against legislation inspired by or similar to Florida’s bills.

The fact that these laws are being so summarily blocked by the courts—leading to rounds of headlines like “‘Positively Dystopian’: Federal Judge Blocks Florida Stop WOKE Act” in local and national news45Alex DeLuca, “”Positively Dystopian”: Federal Judge Blocks Florida Stop WOKE Act,” Miami New Times, November 17, 2022,—may not necessarily slow down Florida legislators or the DeSantis administration. After all, Florida officials continue to exhaust the appeals process to overturn these injunctions. But the continuous toll of these legal losses may be having a cumulative effect in wearing down the patience of legislators—at least, those who are hopefully more interested in good governance than good politics.46Erik Sandoval, “DeSantis asks for millions to fight lawsuits challenging new laws,” Click Orlando, January 2, 2024, This wearying effect is hopefully becoming more pronounced as legislators are forced to come to grips with the literal costs of these policies.

The (Actual) Cost of Litigation

While 2022 was the year of Don’t Say Gay and Stop WOKE, it was also the year that cost Florida taxpayers roughly $17 million in legal bills across 15 different lawsuits.47Mary Ellen Klas, “DeSantis’ culture wars grabbed headlines — and legal challenges that cost $17 million,” Miami Herald, December 22, 2022, One year later, the 2023 Florida legislative session closed with the House and Senate allocating almost $16 million for litigation costs to defend policies DeSantis had advanced that year.48John Kennedy, “DeSantis gets millions in taxpayer money to fight lawsuits over hard-right policies,” Tallahassee Democrat, May 12, 2023, Florida’s top leadership are spending millions of taxpayer dollars to defend litigation that they have already witnessed federal judges strike down as fundamentally unconstitutional. 

Senate President Passidomo has defended these high litigation costs by claiming that “we’re in a litigious society.”49John Kennedy, “DeSantis gets millions in taxpayer money to fight lawsuits over hard-right policies,” Tallahassee Democrat, May 12, 2023, But the legislature’s $16 million allowance for litigation sends the message that DeSantis and Florida legislators appear willing to knowingly waste millions of taxpayers dollars in order to uphold legislation that 1) actively infringes on citizens’ First Amendment rights, and 2) is designed in such a way that these First Amendment violations are incurable, inherent parts of the legislation. 

This year’s HB 1291, for example, is written in such a way that viewpoint discrimination is a key pillar of the bill. Legislators cannot have failed to notice its presumptive unconstitutionality—it incorporates the exact same “Stop WOKE” provisions that have been struck down twice in federal court. In fact, HB 1291 passed just days after the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the Honeyfund injunction against the Stop WOKE Act, finding that “no matter how controversial the ideas, allowing the government to set the terms of the debate is poison, not antidote.” Inc. v. Governor, No. 22-13135, 2024 WL 909379, at *8 (11th Cir. Mar. 4, 2024).

Similarly, HB 3 is designed so that, even with a parental consent clause, a huge number of minors in Florida will lose access to constitutionally protected speech. Florida Speaker Paul Renner doggedly pursued the original HB 1 and then the reworked HB 3 even though multiple states have struck down mirror provisions that attempt to ban minors from social media.51Zina Hutton, “States Eye Social Media Bans Despite Legal Roadblocks,” Governing, March 11, 2024 For example, an Ohio judge found that a law banning all minors under 16, even with parental consent, was “not narrowly tailored to those ends. Foreclosing minors under sixteen from accessing all content on websites that the Act purports to cover, absent affirmative parental consent, is a breathtakingly blunt instrument for reducing social media’s harm to children.”52NetChoice, LLC v. Yost, No. 2:24-CV-00047, 2024 WL 555904, at *12 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 12, 2024)

Additionally, the passage of HB 3 is in some ways evidence that the Florida legislature’s previous support of parental rights has been a smokescreen. HB 3 effectively prohibits a parent’s right to determine whether their child should have access to social media until a certain age. In this case, ”parental rights” is not about uplifting and serving the rights of all parents, but a rhetorical Trojan Horse to allow the Florida government to reach into peoples’ homes and constrain parents’ decisions. 

By continuing to pass these bills, Florida legislators demonstrate that despite the constitutional risks—and despite the way that some of these bills contradict the very values that they claim to stand for—they are willing to pass this legislation and waste Florida taxpayer dollars to try to uphold it. As these costs to the taxpayer continue to mount, responsible legislators will hopefully realize that they are burning their constituents’ money.

The Waning Popularity of the DeSantis War on Wokeness

Governor DeSantis built his 2024 presidential campaign on the same “war on wokeness” strategies that he introduced in Florida several years before, with policies like the Stop WOKE Act and Don’t Say Gay bill as centerpieces of his political brand. These efforts have been responsible for transforming book banning advocates like Moms for Liberty into potent political allies. Yet in 2024, DeSantis’s strategy appears to be waning in popularity, both nationally and in the state. By November 2023, his statewide public approval rating was just 38%, a steep decline from July 2023 when he had a 54% approval rating among Florida voters.53“Mainstreet Research Survey – Florida,” Mainstreet Research and Florida Atlantic University, November 2023,

Between the administration’s flagship bills failing to pass the legislature, failing in the courts, failing to strike a chord with voters, and DeSantis’s 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 halt and reverse the trajectory of the last four years.

Floridians must be wary however. The decline in the approval of a single politician does not negate the lasting impact of the Governor’s legislative agenda, nor suggest such campaigns for censorious legislation will end of their own accord. Consistent and ongoing pushback and pressure will be necessary to ensure that this censorial movement is permanently reversed. 

It is also critical to remember that the Governor of Florida should not be misunderstood as the sole reason for this censorship agenda. This wave flows from many streams—the growing censorship movement from groups such as Moms for Liberty across the country, allies in both the Florida House and Senate pushing for laws against “wokeness” and “indoctrination,” and a robust propaganda campaign to politicize our public education system and sow dissent and division in every county and school district across Florida.

Grassroots Mobilization

At the local level in Florida, there has been a significant movement to resist and challenge censorious legislation and mitigate its effects.54Talib Visram, “These small acts of defiance are helping Floridians ush back against Ron DeSantis’ oppressive policies,” Fast Company, June 9, 2023, Some parents have taken to grassroots actions like privately distributing banned books, creating free neighborhood libraries, organizing other parents in their counties to speak out, and testifying at school board meetings; educators are pushing back by filing lawsuits when faced with overly vague, chilling legislation; and students across the state are rallying for their right to read.55Douglas Soule, “Little Free Libraries aim to have a big impact in school book ban-barraged Florida,” Tallahassee Democrat, October 6, 2023,; Mike Schneider, “Florida students and professors say a new law censors academic freedom. They’re suing to stop it,” AP News, August 15, 2023,; Danielle Prieur, “Brevard students rally against book bans, while board removes another book,” WMFE, February 7, 2024,

Concurrently, groups like Moms for Liberty and Florida Citizens Alliance’s political power appears to be waning. These groups’ responsibility for mass book banning is facing significant public pushback.56Daniella DaRos, “I-Team: Who is behind Florida’s school book challenges?,” CBS 12, December 28, 2022, Moms for Liberty chapters are reportedly splitting from the group and membership numbers dwindling, not to mention the controversies that embroil the group on multiple levels.57Denise Royal, Carlos Suarez and Ray Sanchez, “Moms for Liberty faces new challenges and growing pushback over its conservative education agenda,” CNN, February 3, 2024,; Greg Sargent, “Moms for Liberty Is Slowly Imploding, and That’s Bad for MAGA in 2024,” The New Republic, March 11, 2024,; “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appoints Moms for Liberty co-founder to state Commission on Ethics,” Associated Press, September 6, 2023, Parents, teachers, school board members, and students appear to be growing tired with such groups’ opposition to discussing race, diversity, and LGBTQ+ identities and issues in classrooms, and participation in Florida is beginning to decline.58Will Solomon, “The Moms Fighting Against Moms for Liberty,” The River, January 26, 2023,; Cayla Bamberger, “NYC elected officials, teachers protest at right wing Moms for Liberty event,” NY Daily News, January 18, 2024,; Carlos Suarez, “’Things have gone too far’: School board member on decline of ‘Moms for Liberty’,”” CNN, January 28, 2024,; Abby Patkin, “Harvard student goes viral for takedown of Moms for Liberty co-founder in Florida,”, December 18, 2023,

As for this year’s session, the slate of recent legislative defeats can be in part attributed to the formation and unprecedented coordinated work of broad statewide and national coalitions. In 2024, dozens of groups, including PEN America, banded together in favor of preserving free speech and free expression in Florida—groups across the political spectrum and with diverse priorities, some of whom have been on opposing sides in the past. Civil society coalition letters opposing HB 3 and its Senate Amendment, HB 757, and HB 1291 are just a few examples: These three letters had a total of 25 signatories between them, and included state and national faculty unions, religious and interfaith organizations, LGBTQ+ rights collectives, First Amendment-centric groups, and more.59Katie Blankenship, Katie Blankenship, Maxx Fenning, et al., “Free Speech Groups Opposition to HB 3: Online Access of Material Harmful to Minors, Senate Amendment,” Retrieved from PEN America, March 3, 2024,; Greg Y. Gonzalez, Katie Blankenship, Bobby Block, et al., “Written testimony against HB 757: Defamation, False Light, and Unauthorized Publication of Name or Likenesses,” Retrieved from ACLU Florida, February 20, 2024,; Katie Blankenship, Teresa M. Hodge, Andrew Spar, et al., “Written testimony in opposition to SB 1372/HB 1291: Educator Preparation Programs,” Retrieved from PEN America, February 28, 2024,

The court wins, grassroots mobilization, and legislative victories against censorious bills are all signs that, after three years of the government’s radical attacks on core principles of free expression, many Floridians are mobilizing in ways like never before to defend public education and democracy.

The Ongoing Risk of Censorship

While there have been important cracks in the facade in Florida, as yet these are only incremental gains. It will require sustained resistance to create real change. The positive signs beginning to show in Florida also do little to redress the enormous harm that has already been inflicted across Florida’s public education system. There will be no long term improvement in the environment for free expression and the freedom to read and learn in Florida without steadfast persistence. Floridians should be prepared to face a number of new and ongoing challenges.

The Ongoing Threat to Public Education

Floridians must remain on high alert regarding the ongoing threats to the public education system, from pre-K to higher education. As documented herein, there were bills such as SB 470 (the “foreign terrorist” bill) and HB 901 (the flag bill) that directly targeted free speech on campus and failed this year. But the failure of these bills does not erase the overall harm already inflicted on the public education system in Florida. Such harm continues to this day, due to bills such as SB 266, which is responsible for the closure of the University of Florida’s entire DEI department, University of North Florida’s closure of its women, interfaith, and LGBTQ+ centers, and the hostile takeover of New College.60“U. of Florida axes DEI office under GOP-led law aimed at ridding similar programs,” NPR, March 4, 2024,; Andrew Badillo, “State regulation to force closure of UNF LGBTQ Center, Intercultural Center, Interfaith Center, Women’s Center,” First Coast News, January 24, 2024,; Cameron Joseph and Paul Blest, “What it’s Like When Ron DeSantis Takes Over Your College,” VICE News, February 8, 2023,

Meanwhile, state officials continue to explore new ways to advance their book banning offensive. Just a few weeks after the Governor’s press conference declaring book bans a problem, the Florida Department of Education formed a working group to create advisory materials for Florida’s media specialists (a term that largely applies to librarians, and refers to a staff member responsible for managing resources found in a library and maintaining the media program at a school).61Leslie Postal, “DeSantis again calls book banning a ‘hoax’ but wants laws tweaked,” Orlando Sentinel, February 15, 2024, Three of the six roles were filled with Moms for Liberty members.62Douglas Soule, “Florida picks Moms for Liberty members for group to advise librarians on book removals,” Tallahassee Democrat, March 15, 2024, The group held its initial meeting on March 14th to discuss revising the state’s instructions to media specialists.63Douglas Soule, “Florida picks Moms for Liberty members for group to advise librarians on book removals,” Tallahassee Democrat, March 15, 2024, Such instructions had previously urged professionals to “err on the side of caution” with their book choices, an instruction which has been credited with spreading fear, confusion, and contributing to any number of book bans across Florida school districts.64Ana Goñi-Lessan, “Which books are allowed? Varied interpretations of Florida law lead to confusion at schools,” Tallahassee Democrat, March 2, 2023, Reports from the working group’s meeting show that the recent settlement of the Don’t Say Gay case, which specified that the law doesn’t apply to classroom and library books with LGBTQ+ characters or same-sex couples, was absent from the agenda.65Equality Florida v. State of Florida, March 11, 2024,; Douglas Soule, “Florida picks Moms for Liberty members for group to advise librarians on book removals,” Tallahassee Democrat, March 15, 2024, 

The working group’s composition and activities so far suggest that the DeSantis Administration remains heavily committed to book banning as an executive priority.

As Stephana Ferrell, co-founder and director of research and insight for the Florida Freedom to Read Project, a leading public education advocacy organization stated, “It’s evident that the Florida Department of Education is not ready to turn a corner and start tamping down on the gross censorship we’re seeing across the state.”66Douglas Soule, “Florida picks Moms for Liberty members for group to advise librarians on book removals,” Tallahassee Democrat, March 15, 2024,

All of these ongoing concerns show that while there is important progress happening in Florida, it will require tending and perseverance to maintain it. And even then, the state will have to reckon with the impact this legislation has had on free expression and education in the state.


Floridians have real reason to hope that for the first time in what seems like a very long time, the tide is turning on book banning and other systemic rollbacks on free expression in the state. But this hope will only last if pushback is sustained. Should the pressure ease, and specifically the pressure from multiple angles—the legislature, the judiciary, the grassroots movement—Florida’s leadership in its highest offices cannot be trusted to ensure an end to book bans, the stigmatization of LGBTQ+ teachers and students, an educational system free from government-imposed ideological control, and other rigorous policing of constitutionally-protected speech and expression. This responsibility necessarily—albeit unfairly—falls on the shoulders of Floridians to continue to resist and protect their democracy. 

As Floridians continue to make progress on this front, other states who have used Florida as a road map should pay careful attention. The cracks in the facade will not stop at Florida’s borders. 

Whether this truly represents the beginning of the end of the nationwide movement to censor education is dependent on Floridians’ willingness to stand up and say enough is enough.


This report was written by Katie Blankenship, Director of PEN America Florida, and Sophia Brown, program coordinator, with strategic support and editing from James Tager, Director of Research; Ryan Howzell, Research Program Manager; Summer Lopez, Chief Program Officer of Free Expression; Jonathan Friedman, Sy Syms Managing Director of U.S. Free Expression Programs; Hadar Harris, Interim Director, Washington D.C.; and Kasey Meehan, Program Director, Freedom to Read. Grey Nebel also provided critical support for fact-checking. Graphic design by Melissa Joskow. 

We also thank key partners in this work, the Florida Freedom to Read Project and Pamela Burch Fort. We also deeply appreciate the collaboration from many organizations across the state in cooperative efforts to push back against censorious legislation, such as Equality Florida, the First Amendment Foundation, the ACLU of Florida, the Freadom Coalition of South Florida, the American Federation of Teachers, United Faculty of Florida, the Florida Education Association, Common Cause, and Interfaith Alliance, just to name a few.

Hero image editorial credit: Dennis MacDonald /