TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials gathered in Tampa to address what they call “hoaxes” about banned books in the state.
After giving a warning that the presentation would begin with a five minute video that was sexually explicit and not suitable for children, the governor’s staff put up a sign reading “Exposing the Book Ban Hoax,” as the topic’s main event.
The event was focused on previous reports by various media outlets and activists concerning rumors and allegations that Florida was banning books in school districts and making teachers remove class libraries to audit materials, leading to pictures of empty bookshelves, used to show what some teachers say they were going through amid a variety of education-focused legislation.
The proposed bills in Florida have prompted concerns by some as violations of academic freedom, and more broadly, free speech.
While some district teachers across the state have said they were told to remove books, or removed them on their own to avoid legal threats or risks, the governor’s office and other officials have maintained that the removal of books was never ordered.
Similarly, those who have come out in opposition to the alleged bans and the accompanying legislation have done so out of fear of litigation or loss of employment. Educational directives in the state of Florida have been the source of intense discourse from both sides of the aisle involving teaching of gender and sexual orientation topics, critical race theory, and other so-called “woke” ideologies targeted by state officials.
DeSantis came to speak to the room in the state attorney’s office after the presentation finished.
He told the crowd that he had not watched the video that was presented, but that the state was intent on having “the truth prevail.” The governor said book ban rumors were a hoax used to sexualize Florida children, also promising that they would be addressing the “Black History hoax,” in response to criticism of recent conflict over an Advanced Placement African American Studies course rejected by state education officials, including Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr.
Referring to video from Duval County schools where there were empty shelves, DeSantis said it was a hoax made by a school employee, who was later fired.
“You’ve also had other things where they tried to say you’re not allowed to teach certain things that we require,” DeSantis said, adding that other individuals were currently facing disciplinary action and may also be fired. “A lot of what’s been going on is an attempt to create a political narrative, and it’s a false political narrative and that’s bad enough for me, but for the important thing is it’s a false narrative that’s using our schools for indoctrination.”
DeSantis said Florida was against that, instead that the state had made it a priority to ensure parents’ rights were preserved and indoctrination did not occur in Florida schools. He described some of the materials presented as pornographic.
The governor asked how use of Florida taxpayer dollars to provide the materials, described by him as explicit, was appropriate and referred back to the Parents’ Bill of Rights legislation from 2021 and other more recent reforms introduced and passed into law.
“I think there is a concerted effort to bring some of this sexualization into the classroom, particularly in these young grades,” DeSantis said. “Even when you’re talking about 12, 13-year-olds, I think most parents would say ‘absolutely not.’ Parents can have those discussions when they think it’s appropriate but to have that is wrong. We’ve been very clear about that and how we’re going to handle that.”
DeSantis also said there have been rumors about the teaching of African American history in Florida. He discussed the testing and experimental phases of the College Board’s AP African American studies program, and how the state had rejected it.
Then he gave examples from the course, mentioning queer studies and asking the crowd why that would be appropriate for the class and curriculum. The governor said much of the rejected content was of a “heavy ideological bent,” and said it was akin to neo-Marxism, that the course was ideology-driven, and pushed back on the claim that Florida would not teach African American history, instead saying that state statute requires teaching of that portion of history.
Then he turned to the Stop WOKE Act, passed in 2022, mentioning the ongoing litigation over the bill’s bans on critical race theory and changes to diversity training in workplaces. DeSantis said he was certain they would end up winning in court.
Mentioning a book about Hank Aaron that was allegedly removed from schools, DeSantis called the claim a hoax and that those books had not been removed. He also said that the Stop WOKE Act required teaching of “inspirational” people in African American history curriculum.
“Don’t tell somebody that you’re oppressed and you have no chance in life,” DeSantis said. “Why would you work hard if you don’t have a chance to be able to do? So it’s a positive view, it’s showing that people have been able to break down barriers and do great things and I think that is the way we need to be doing it, rather than saying the country’s bad and all of that stuff. The facts are the facts, the history is the history.”
DeSantis said it applied to more than just African American history, mentioning that there were multiple times when Americans and others didn’t live up to their ideals but that people fought and were able to win more freedom on a variety of issues.
He said the Stop WOKE Act banned teaching kids that they were inherently racist based on their origin or background, saying that if those gathered thought it was wrong, then they could debate it there and then.
DeSantis said the law also prohibits teaching that any particular race is superior to another and that it’s wrong to discriminate based on race, color, or national origin.
“We also say in the Stop WOKE Act that it’s wrong to teach that concepts like merit or hard work are basically racist concepts,” DeSantis said. “In reality we believe merit and hard work are important so people are able to pursue happiness.”
He continued detailing the legislation, saying that it was prohibited to teach kids that they were responsible for the actions of members of the same racial group, referring to history from “200 years ago,” and that “some first grader sitting in the classroom” wasn’t responsible for that. Instruction on “collective guilt for actions committed in the past” was also banned, saying that it prevented some of the “ideology from getting in” to Florida curriculum but that those requirements were not controversial. He said that was why the hoaxes were being perpetrated, so that arguing the legislation on its merits was to serve political needs.
“They’re lying, so that’s not good ground to be on, but they can’t defend their positions on the merit, so that’s why you have this situation,” DeSantis said. “You also have, in terms of the pornographic material, teachers are so worried that they may end up being charged with a third degree felony for having books in their classroom.”
The governor said that wasn’t from the Stop WOKE Act, but instead a long-standing Florida law banning giving pornography to minors. He said citing that law as chilling was not a real issue.
DeSantis also pushed back on reports that Florida was banning teaching that slavery occurred in the United States, saying that the media outlets reporting it were not taking the time to fact check, specifically referencing MSNBC and claiming that it was just one reason people didn’t trust the news organization now.
“We’re going to fight back, we’re going to make sure we’re speaking the truth, but the important thing is, that the hoax is there in and of itself and that it is a false narrative, but more that it’s a false narrative and using the schools for a nefarious purpose,” DeSantis said.
He introduced Diaz to talk about the issues next.
Diaz mentioned an alleged ban on using “To Kill a Mockingbird” shared on social media by Randi Weingarten, the president of American Federation of Teachers. Instead, Diaz said the curriculum actually has the book as required reading, with similar commentary about a book by Roberto Clemente about Hank Aaron.
The education commissioner said those claims were lies meant to target the governor in the media, instead he said it was true that ban on pornography had been long-standing state law and that it was not wrong to remove those materials from the potential reach of students, especially those in elementary school.
“Education should be focused on academic excellence, and the teaching of the truth, not indoctrinating children to become political activists,” Diaz said. “Our mission is to protect the tried and true historical approach for education which is presenting children with historically accurate content, and they can create their own decisions and their own perspective. We must use this historical approach which has been part of our country for a very long time, it’s actually what’s made our country great and it’s served us for generations. Unfortunately, ideology has corrupted education and it’s gotten us off track.”
Diaz said critics would continue to point at book bans and pornographic material, as well as talking about critical race theory, “trying to make it part of African American history,” when it “is not.”
After Diaz, DeSantis introduced Tia Bess, a member of Moms for Liberty and a board member for the Duval County School District. She discussed how she’d switched political parties from Democrat to Republican and called for Americans to do their own research and criticized the “fake news” for misinformation and biases in their reporting. Bess said “CRT does not belong” in Florida schools.
She said Americans need more political leaders like DeSantis who support transparency. Another speaker spoke about her “shock” at some reviews for a book her child asked for to read as part of class, describing its graphic content.
After, Dr. Stacy Hahn, a Hillsborough County School Board member, spoke, thanking DeSantis for his work to bring transparency. She said she’s fought against sexually explicit material in schools for the past year, but that has been a priority of hers for a while.
Hahn said it was difficult to be in the minority for a school board. She said she’s worked with parents across the county who are concerned about school materials.
When Hahn finished speaking, DeSantis returned to the podium. He said children should not be exposed to pornographic materials and that schools should reprioritize.
“Every minute you spend focusing on some of this pornographic stuff, that’s less time you’re spending on doing the things that really matter, to our kids, in terms of them getting the education they need in math and reading and all of these other things,” DeSantis said. “The only way you make that decision in my judgment is if you’re putting your own agenda before the wellbeing of the students. And that’s something we’re seeing all too often.”
The presentation before the main event began with a series of video clips from various cable news outlets under a heading “Myth #1: Florida has banned books from the classroom.” The footage shown was of now-viral images of the aforementioned empty shelves and has a variety of news reports detailing new regulations passed into law under the various education reforms passed in Florida in recent years.
Then, examples of explicit material found in books that were available in Florida school districts were shown. Books shown as examples include “Gender Queer,” “Flamer,” “This Book is Gay,” and “Let’s Talk About It,” among others.
The event was accompanied by handouts regarding “concerns” found in the AP studies course that Florida rejected, listing “intersectionality and activism, Black queer studies, movements for movements for Black lives, Black feminist literary thought, the Reparations Movement, and Black study and Black struggle in the 21st Century.” The sheet on the AP course was previously released by the Florida Dept. of Education in January.
Another document titled “Myths vs. Facts” listed four myths and the facts, according to state officials, regarding them, echoing the commentary of DeSantis, Diaz, and others about what items were hoaxes and why.
Then DeSantis had a question and answer session with those gathered. He first highlighted Florida’s economic statuses, mentioning revenue, migration to the state, and the start of the legislative session. In similar fashion to his State of the State address on Tuesday, DeSantis said “you ain’t seen nothing yet,” referring to coming laws and policies.
Answering a question about Florida’s withdrawal from a program aimed at helping keep voter rolls accurate, DeSantis cited privacy concerns with it. The initiative, run by a nonprofit, is called the Electronic Registration Information Center. DeSantis said the state had pulled out because how the organization used its data was “concerning” and that it was being used “for partisan purposes.”
Another question came about the library shelves and the book issues, DeSantis said the curriculum transparency law was signed in spring 2022 and empowered parents, and was not something “that should have waited this long,” but that class books in Middle School should not take a thorough review.
“I think some of this that was being done, was being done, I don’t know about Manatee but I know about Duval, but was intentionally trying to create friction, trying to create issues, to make it seem like something was wrong in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. “And that’s something that’s not going to take a rocket scientist to figure out this shouldn’t be in schools.”
He said if you know Florida law, claims about the Stop WOKE Act were “totally false” due to Florida’s requirement to teach about racism and history. DeSantis said most schools had not had issues with the legislation.
“A lot of them, to be fair ,because I know some of the stuff in Hillsborough is concerning. The vast majority of school districts in Florida are not ordering those books, that’s a good thing, they’re not trying to do that,” DeSantis said. “We’re focusing on some of the problems and we need to rectify those but we should also point out that the vast majority of school districts have been doing it right and they’ve been sensitive to what’s appropriate and not appropriate and I think the parents are pleased in many parts of the state.”
Discussing immigration and the Cuban regime, DeSantis said people’s liberties were being “extinguished” and that the regime there was a crime against humanity.
DeSantis weighed in on vaccination statuses and how Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic had been deported from Australia over refusal to take an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
He repeated previous commentary about how the vaccination requirements were ineffective as prevention for COVID infections. The governor said natural immunity was a “fact of life” and that Djokovic posed “zero risk” since he had already had COVID, saying he would get a boat for him from the Bahamas to bring him to Florida to play tennis.
DeSantis joked that he understood why Djokovic’s people may not want to enter the United States via boat from the islands.
The governor called vaccine restrictions an example of President Joe Biden using “executive fiat” rather than a rule made by U.S. Congress and said that he would allow him into Florida via boat without it counting as a violation of law.