Brevard school board mulls no longer broadcasting public comment in light of HB 1069

Brevard’s formal book review process has been halted since June, but with a new state law, parents could find a way to circumvent the traditional review process. That left the school board debating how to respond if a parent seeks to force a fast-track ban on a book.

House Bill 1069, which went into effect July 1, lays out rules related to what can and can’t be taught in schools or kept on library shelves. It also says that parents must be allowed to read passages from “any material that is subject to an objection,” and that if the school board stops a parent from reading the passage because it is pornographic, the book must be pulled from library shelves or removed from curriculum.

But the language is so vague, it doesn't specify where the parent should read the book, just that it needs to be in the presence of a school board member.

After 34 books were pulled from Indian River County shelves following an Aug. 28 meeting, at which speakers read excerpts from books they called sexually explicit or pornographic, Brevard school board members prepared Thursday for a similar situation. Titles included "Me, Ear and the Dying Girl" by Jesse Andrews, "Tilt" by Ellen Hopkins and "Looking for Alaska" by John Green.

"I don't think we're about to pull every book that might have content that we wouldn't necessarily want read in a public meeting," said board member Katye Campbell. "I'd like us to proactively think about, 'What if this happens in Brevard?'"

How they might handle such a situation wasn't decided at Thursday night's meeting, but proposed solutions included allowing parents to read explicit passages but no longer broadcasting the public comment section, with the concern that stopping parents from reading would get out of hand.

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The Rockledge High School Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Chorus/Orchestra teacher Meg McGivney performed at the start of the August 22 Brevard County School Board meeting in Viera.
The Rockledge High School Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Chorus/Orchestra teacher Meg McGivney performed at the start of the August 22 Brevard County School Board meeting in Viera.

What does the law require?

Books that are found to contain content that is sexually explicit or pornographic must pulled within five days of being reported to the district, according to HB 1069. Books that may be age inappropriate, such as books containing explicit language or violence, are given more leeway, with the law allowing districts to restrict the books to specific grade levels rather than fully banning them.

At Thursday night’s meeting, Campbell expressed concern about the law being abused to ban books with profane language or violence in circumvention of the district's book review policy.

“There are parts of, for example, Huckleberry Finn, that I wouldn’t want somebody reading in a public meeting, because there’s some colorful language,” she said. “There are some biographies of some of our Black American heroes that are going to include the N-word. Are we going to — I don't want that content read in a public meeting.”

Based on the law’s text, the board isn't required to pull a book if they stop someone from reading a passage with explicit language. The law only says books with pornographic content must be pulled if a board member stops someone from reading it in public.

But vague language in the bill’s text has left the district with a lack of guidance and caused confusion amongst board members.

Board Attorney Paul Gibbs said the book must be objected to prior to the parent reading a passage — otherwise, the board doesn’t have to pull it, even if they stop someone from reading a sexually explicit passage.

However, the law isn’t so clear. It says books subject to an objection based on sexually explicit or pornographic content must be removed from shelves within five days of the objection until the district can resolve the objection. It’s not clear if an objection is limited to a request for a book review, or if it also applies when a member of the public brings a book forward during a school board meeting.

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Board members and Gibbs also discussed who had the ultimate authority to stop a public commenter from reading and decide if a book needed to be pulled. It was a topic discussed back in June, just before the book review process was halted, with board members debating whether or not they should take advice from the book committee and make the final decision on a book's fate. No decision was ever made.

Generally, Board Chair Matt Susin stops public comment when a speaker goes over their time limit or uses profane language. The same would likely be true in the instance of someone reading an explicit passage, though other scenarios could be possible, Gibbs said.

"(Susin) runs the meeting, so he's the one that stops public comment," Gibbs said, though he added that if another board member stopped public comment, the speaker could "make an argument" that the board cut them off and thus the book should be banned.

Jennifer Jenkins took issue with this, saying not only would they be circumventing the book review policy, but authority would rest on Susin rather than the board as a whole.

"It literally circumvents the entire point of the (review) committee and the policy (if) going forward it's one person," she said.

The law doesn't require the authority to rest on the board chair -- or that's not how other districts are interpreting it. In Leon County, the superintendent decides what books to pull. And in Indian River, the school board voted unanimously to remove the contested books at the Aug. 28 meeting.

So far, Brevard's book committee has removed three poetry books by Rupi Kaur from all school and classroom libraries since the new policy was approved in April. Prior to that, the district also removed the book "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe without going through the review process, based on the grounds that the book contained pornographic content.

Protesters concerned about book selections in Brevard Public Schools libraries gather outside before the March 28 school board meeting.
Protesters concerned about book selections in Brevard Public Schools libraries gather outside before the March 28 school board meeting.

Public comment live feed could be cut

With the potential for explicit material to be read allowed at meetings, Campbell brought up concerns about breaking Federal Communications Commission guidelines, as the district broadcasts a livestream of board meetings. Her proposed solution — let public commenters read passages in full so that the books would still be required to go through the book review process and broadcast the rest of the meeting, but record the public comment section later to be posted online with a content warning.

“It would satisfy FCC guidelines … it would satisfy state law, because we’re allowing parents to read the content, it would help us stick to the book challenge process that we have established,” she said.

She added that the district's book review policy is good and she would like to proceed with it, but that it needs to be "tweaked."

Megan Wright said it's important to her to make sure public comment is available to people who can't attend meetings in person.

"I think everyone needs to hear it, if that's what happens," she said, referring to the scenario of a parent reading an explicit passage.

She added that she understands why people might try to get around the formal review process.

"I would hope that the public would honor the process, but I understand the frustrations because, let's face it, how many years did (the book review process) go on?" she said. "And how many books were reviewed when it was the other way around?"

The book review process, which was paused in June due to concerns about public comment and harassment toward committee members, as well as the need to incorporate language from HB 1069, has yet to resume.

Gibbs said legally, the district is not required to broadcast public comment, or any of the board meetings. “Some public entities don’t broadcast their meetings,” he said. “That’s all legal, and that’s fine. If you want to record it, that’s fine — post it later, you can do that.”

He added that the board may have to make an amendment to their public comment policy prior to making any changes.

A decision about how to handle public comment was not made Thursday, but the board is scheduled to discuss the issue further at Tuesday's work session.

Changes to public comment have been a source of controversy for Brevard. The board was sued by a group of current and former Moms for Liberty members earlier this year, with the group saying the board's public speaking rules had a chilling effect on public speech. A federal judge ruled against the group in February, saying the policy did not infringe on their First Amendment rights.

At Thursday's meeting, board also approved the budget for the 2024 fiscal year, as well as the millage levy.

The budget is made up of a total of $1,621,602,277, with $803,457,583 allotted to general operations in the district, $37,939,756 set aside for debt service, $439,095,551 allotted for capital projects, $227,855,555 for special revenue, $105,840,969 for internal service and $7,412,863 for the enterprise fund.

School property taxes are estimated at about $478.73 for homes with an assessed value of $100,000, according to the district. What this means is that over the course of a year, the property taxes for a home with an assessed value of $200,000 averages $3.54 a day.

Finch Walker is the education reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Walker at 321-290-4744 or Twitter: @_finchwalker.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Explicit passages prompts Brevard schools to mull no longer broadcasting public comments