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Florida school book challenges could be heard by special magistrate, under new law

HB 1069: Objectors not happy with school board's decision can request magistrate hear case
File photo of books in a Florida public school library during the 2022-23 academic year.PNG
Posted at 5:27 PM, Jul 11, 2023

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A change to the book challenge process in Florida schools could take final decisions out of the hands of local school districts.

A law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that just took effect on July 1 allows objectors to request that a special magistrate hear their concerns if they are not happy with a school board's decision about a book.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Education

At an April school board meeting in St. Lucie County, community member Dale Galiano appealed to the school board, asked them to reject the superintendent's decision not to remove the books she challenged.

"I'm not banning books. I'm not burning books," Galiano said. "Do I want them out of the schools and put in public libraries? Definitely."

The board sided with the superintendent, putting the issue to rest.

But under a new state law, HB 1069, that may not be the final word in the future.

"The problem is it really takes the decision making out of the local control and it takes away the ability for people to really, locally, look at what's necessary for a book in a particular school or community," said Reagan Miller, the director of development for the Florida Freedom To Read Project.

Miller is talking about a portion of HB 1069 that says if a parent disagrees with a school board's decision about a book challenge, they can request the Florida commissioner of education appoint a special magistrate to hear the case.

"The special magistrate shall determine facts relating to the school district's determination, consider information provided by the parent and the school district, and render a recommended decision for resolution to the State Board of Education within 30 days after receipt of the request by the parent," the law reads.

The law also says the cost of the special magistrate will fall on the school district.

"This could be very costly to our districts. And already, I think our schools are underfunded as it is," Miller said. "And this is going to continue to compound that problem."

Miller worries this could lead school districts to simply remove books out of fear that a challenge could elevate to the state level.

Book bans and book removals have been increasingly hot topics around Florida over the past few years. As of April, free speech organization PEN America reported that Florida and Texas lead the country in book bans.

The State Board of Education would have to approve or reject the special magistrate's decision.

The state is still developing the rules that would govern the magistrate process and they are taking public comment. To submit a comment, click here.

The Martin County School District has received national attention for the number of books challenged and removed from school library and classroom shelves. The district said the new law is something they are monitoring and looking forward to receiving the associated State Board of Education rules for implementation.