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Orange County Public Schools and the New Pornography

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Stephana Ferrell

Co-Founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Orange County Public Schools and the New Pornography

Wix Media

The Orange County Board of Education wants to re-define “pornography” to circumvent longstanding procedures for removing controversial books from school library shelves. Florida statute already provides adequate protection for students. So is the real goal targeting books by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors?

During its July 12 meeting to review policies for school library materials, the Orange County Board of Education introduced an expanded definition of pornography: one that could empower school leaders to unilaterally remove controversial books from school libraries without going through the standard book challenge process. Although the school year just started Wednesday, the board hasn’t yet decided whether to add this broader definition to its “Library Materials Selection and Adoption” policy.

This is problematic. Florida laws and current school district policies already protect students from pornographic content and have done so for years. This rush to slap “pornography” or “obscenity” labels on controversial books is just a way for a small, vocal minority to get books that they don’t like — namely by authors who are LGBTQ+ and Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) — out of the library with limited interference.

Under Florida statute, creative works like books must be evaluated using: 1) community standards to determine if a particular work is offensive, 2) prurient and, 3) lacking in artistic or literary value. Only then can they be deemed “harmful to minors'' and access denied. The literary review process ensures that the district keeps truly pornographic materials out of school libraries and away from the eyes of impressionable children, while still giving students access to a wide variety of literary voices, topics and ideas.

Still, the school board felt the need to add a belt to their metaphorical suspenders, tacking on the prohibition of “any depiction (written narrative or graphic) of sexual conduct” to make it clear that content that’s intended to arouse would not be tolerated, according to John Palmerini, Orange County Public Schools’ deputy general counsel, who argued for its addition.

The school board will discuss this proposed policy at its Aug. 16 workshop, which is open to the public. The board will vote during its regular Aug. 30 meeting “if we are happy with what comes from the workshop,” Melissa Byrd, school board vice chair and district 7 board member, told VoxPopuli in an email.

School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs — who is running for re-election against two candidates who are endorsed by multiple right-wing groups and actively promote the teaching of revisionist history and the removal of LGBTQ+ support from schools — praised the addition to the pornography definition. She said it gives the school board latitude to quickly censor books it believes violates Florida Department of Education standards without additional input. However, when VoxPopuli recently asked her at a political candidates meet-and-greet about her support for the addendum, she replied, “Do you want pornography in schools?” then cut the interview off.

By its own definition, the school board appears quite willing to tolerate certain kinds of “sexual conduct.” As Palmerini pointed out, state educational standards would supersede any district-level definition that could characterize a book as being inappropriate for the classroom. In other words, books required for English classes would be exempt from the more conservative “pornography” classification drafted by the school board.

For instance, despite the “sexual conduct” found in say, Romeo and Juliet, The Canterbury Tales and even the Bible, which are among the 300 books on the list of B.E.S.T Standards for English Language Arts, they will remain in school libraries because students need them for classes.

So, what’s the point of defining pornography in this way? Look at the library books not on the B.E.S.T. Standards list, like Gender Queer. Jacobs frequently referenced Gender Queer, Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir about being nonbinary and asexual, as a book that would meet the “sexual conduct” threshold for pornography. (Indeed, a pair of Republican politicians in Virginia Beach are attempting to get Gender Queer declared “obscene” using an obscure Virginia law that allows any individual to file a petition claiming a book is obscene. If a judge finds it so, even sharing the book could become illegal. A similar bill cropped up in Florida’s legislative session, but never made it out of the education committee.)

In Orange County, former Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) Superintendent Barbara Jenkins preemptively removed all copies of Gender Queer from the libraries at Boone, Lake Buena Vista and Dr. Phillips High Schools without allowing the book to go through the regular literary review process. Her barely credible explanation was that keeping the book in the library would cause “substantial disruption” in the classroom.

Even so, the school board agreed that Gender Queer had literary value — a key determinant in whether a work is labeled pornography. So it appears that since both Romeo and Gender Queer have literary value, the school board objects more to the type of  “sexual conduct” in Gender Queer than “sexual conduct” itself. Bias that blatant needs to be called out, as it was by the National Coalition Against Censorship, especially when books like Gender Queer can guide a suicidal, queer teen to seek out help rather than taking life-threatening action. Gender Queer still hasn’t been returned to those school library shelves.

Of course, school libraries need to ensure they don’t provide access to materials that are strictly prurient, with no literary or artistic value. No one wants Hustler magazine in our school libraries. THAT is pornography. THAT is meant solely to arouse and has zero literary value. But targeting and removing books that deal with gender, sexuality and race under the guise of “protecting students” isn’t the answer. When less than 60 percent of students read at or above grade level in Orange County, it’s important to provide students the opportunity to find and connect with characters that they identify with to improve literacy rates. If the school board adopts this “sexual conduct” language and associates LGBTQ+ books with “pornography” or bans books like Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved for its contextually appropriate sexual violence, our BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students will have a tougher time finding books with characters they relate to.

OCPS’s current policy already aligns with the American Library Association’s recommended library policy, which requires that creative works be evaluated in their entirety, using community standards to determine literary value. OCPS does not need a new definition to protect students from real pornography. Florida law provides enough protection.

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