National effort to label schools' library books pornography takes root in Polk County

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BARTOW – A review of the complaint forms filed with Polk County Public Schools regarding 16 books, ones County Citizens Defending Freedom-USA said contain pornographic material, show the forms are templates from Florida Citizens Alliance and filled out by people from all over the state — but it appears no one from Polk County.

The forms were delivered to Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid during a meeting with CCDF-USA.

Florida Citizens Alliance describes itself as a "nonprofit that champions K-12 education reform in Florida."

"We're the ones who have lead the effort on the pornography in our schools," said Florida Citizens Alliance Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Keith Flaugh. His LinkedIn profile shows he retired as a director of IBM in 2001 before moving to Naples.

"The point I’m making, that we make to anyone who will listen, we often get accused of wanting to ban books and that’s not our objective," Flaugh said. "Our objective is to protect kids from harm. Schools prohibit guns, schools prohibit drugs and many, many other things. These materials violate existing statute. Our objective is to protect kids. It’s the parents' right to decide to share with their children. We don’t believe it’s the government’s responsibility."

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Flaugh said they have about 110,000 members in organizations statewide and have been working on having books removed from libraries for at least the past five years.

According to a 2017 blog on Melville House, FLCA was behind a law that allowed citizens to complain about books in school libraries, not just parents.

"Five or six years ago, we had parents and grandparents come to us with examples of what was in the school system, part of the school libraries," Flaugh said. "About three years ago now, we did our first major study, parents and grandparents, of 44 novels and books in school libraries."

Flaugh and FLCA argue the 58 books they have targeted statewide are pornographic and harm children under Florida State statutes.

FLCA tried the same approach in Marion County in 2019

FLCA tried the same approach in Marion County in 2019, according to the Ocala Star Banner, asking that 13 books be removed from school libraries. It turned out four of those books were not in Marion County school libraries. A committee that reviewed the remaining nine books recommended all nine remain in high school libraries and five remain in middle school libraries.

The decision on three of those books was challenged again. The books were “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “The Bluest Eye,” also by Morrison, and “Dreaming in Cuban” by Cristina Garcia.

In August 2019, the Marion County School Board voted 4-1 to support Superintendent of Schools Heidi Maier's decision not to ban the three challenged books from high school libraries. By the same vote, the board supported Maier’s decision to remove those same books from middle school libraries because of the graphic content.

FLCA targeted Broward County in August 2021

FLCA targeted Broward County in August 2021.

FLCA issued a "2021 Porn in Schools Report," which they urged to "keep...away from minors and avoid indiscriminate distribution." Those wishing to read the report have to sign up and affirm they are at least 18 years old. In the report, they said there was "objectionable materials-porn in Florida public schools" that violated "existing anti-pornography statutes," third-degree felonies.

Read the group's report here. 

"Yet, despite the severity of these offenses, this issue is blatantly ignored in most Florida counties," the report states.

Their report, they say, "is an investigative outline of fifty-eight novels present in Florida Public Schools."

Critical Race Theory

According to a news release issued in May 2021 by FLCA, the group asked Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran "to halt the adoption of English Language Arts textbooks to ensure they do not contain Critical Race Theory."

"We believe their responsibility is academics and teaching our constitutional values," Flaugh said in an interview with The Ledger. "For these school districts to get off into these quote-unquote political issues – we believe it is way beyond what they should be doing."

FLCA published an open letter on the topic last year, adding signatures from "about 50 other organizations across the state," including: Defend Florida, We The People IRC, American Christian Civil Rights Movement, Pinellas Patriots, Moms for America, Women Fighting for America, Gulf Coast Classical Academy, and Save Florida Schools.

That letter requested DeSantis and Corcoran:

  • Stop the adoption of ELA textbooks until the FL DOE can be 100% confident that all the textbooks and teacher editions are completely free of Critical Race Theory and its many tentacles.

  • Strictly prohibit any school district in Florida from accepting a direct federal grant related to Critical Race Theory or its many tentacles.

It didn't take long. A month after their letter was sent, the Associated Press reported that Florida’s state Board of Education banned “critical race theory” from public school classrooms, adopting new rules officials said would shield schoolchildren from curricula that could “distort historical events.”

Flaugh said he wouldn't claim credit for the ban, but hoped FLCA has that kind of influence.

"I wouldn’t stand here and tell Commissioner Corcoran that he was doing our bidding," Flaugh said.

FLCA also listed several other ways it has "successfully influenced Gov. DeSantis," including ensuring that "all high school students must take the same civics exam that new immigrants must pass" and "getting rid of the failed Common Core Standards."

National effort to ban books

FLCA is part of a nationwide effort to rid schools of books they deem pornographic.

In late 2020 in Texas, parents began complaining to the Leander Independent School District that some books recently made available in libraries for their high school students to read were inappropriate.

The simmering pot boiled over one year ago when a parent discussed Carmen Machado’s lesbian memoir “In the Dream House.”

“No one is asking to ban books – we are asking for age-appropriate reading material,” the parent states in a video available on YouTube.

The woman then read a sexually explicit passage and held up a sex toy referenced in the book.

“This is what we’re asking our children to read,” the woman said, dropping the item with a thud onto the speaker’s table as she continued.

Six weeks ago, the Leander Independent School District banned 11 books from its libraries, according to the School Libraries Journal, and school districts across the country are seeing calls for books to be yanked off library shelves or out of teachers’ curricula.

In the past few months, that movement arrived in Polk County as County Citizens Defending Freedom-USA, a conservative political group, proclaimed some books “pornographic” and met privately with Superintendent Heid to ask him to look into the content of 16 books.

Jared Ochs, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Education, said in an email to The Ledger that individual school districts are responsible for determining the content within their own libraries.

“Therefore, these are decisions that need to be addressed at the local level,” Ochs said. “Parents have the right to object to materials they believe are explicit and inappropriate for their children and districts should have processes in place to address these parental concerns. Ultimately, decisions should be made in the best interest of students – we expect school districts to follow all pertinent laws and that content provided to students is both age and grade appropriate.”

According to an editorial written last month by Kathy Ishizuka, editor in chief of School Library Journal, book-banning efforts have become a coordinated, nationwide movement.

“And libraries — both school and, increasingly, public — have been targeted alongside titles deemed ‘inappropriate’ for addressing ­racism or simply race, featuring LGBTQIA+ themes or characters of color," Ishizuka wrote. "It’s hard to know where this will end. But likely not anytime soon.”

Harvey J. Graff, a professor emeritus of English and history and Ohio Eminent Scholar at the Ohio State University, and the author of The Legacies of Literacy, wrote in the December issue of Publisher’s Weekly that the latest book ban movement harkens to the 1950s and 1960s when people were trying to rid libraries of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

“Even Anthony Comstock, secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who tried to use the U.S. Postal Service to limit the circulation of obscene literature and destroyed books, did not aim to empty libraries,” Graff wrote.

The complaint to Polk Schools

The issue in Polk schools began in November, when CCDF Education Division Leader and Executive Assistant Kayla Church requested to meet with Heid. The two held that meeting on Dec. 10 and Church presented the superintendent with a list of 39 books they found questionable. The group settled on 16 books, declaring them on Jan. 25 as ones that meet the definition of pornographic under Florida State Statutes 847.001 and 847.012. Distributing pornography to minors is illegal and a third-degree felony.

Church said in an email to Heid that she had personally read 27 of 30 questionable books. During their meeting, she handed him 133 pages of material compiled by Florida Citizens Alliance.

On Jan. 25, following a CCDF-USA meeting with Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, school district officials swept through dozens of school libraries across the county to remove the 16 books and “quarantine” them until they can be reviewed by a committee that is still being assembled by district officials. Neither Heid nor any School Board member will serve on that committee, according to PCPS spokesman Jason Geary.

"CCDF-USA staff members carefully read and reviewed each of the books in question and compared them to the afore mentioned (sic) statutes,” Nicole Nolte wrote in a press release on Jan. 27.  “CCDF-USA believes the content within the pages of these books is not appropriate for distribution to minors, especially in a public school library. CCDF-USA recognizes that these books have been written by award-winning authors and produced by renowned publishers, however the issue at hand is the content of the books in question describing in graphic detail several sensitive topics including sexual assault, rape, failure to address mental illness as a cause of suicide, racism, incest, child molestation, offensive language, sexually explicit material, bestiality, necrophilia, infanticide, and violence.”

CCDF was co-founded by Steve Maxwell, former vice chairman of the Polk County Republican Party. CCDF has been active at School Board meetings for nearly a year, opposing a mask mandate at area schools and complaining about the district’s reproductive health curriculum, demanding the school district teach age-appropriate lessons or adhere to state statutes when it comes to teaching reproductive health.

Some speakers at School Board meetings asked that sex-ed not be taught at all.

Nolte wrote regarding the books that “CCDF-USA supports and protects the parental right to determine the appropriateness of the curriculum and supplemental content their children are consuming at school.”

Florida Citizens Alliance lists Polk resident Glynnda White as a member of its advisory council.

White directed the Polk County Republican Party headquarters during the 2020 presidential campaign and was outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. during the failed Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

She is the secretary and events coordinator of the Winter Haven 9-12 Project, a reference to the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which members of both parties came together on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and sang God Bless America.

The Winter Haven 9-12 Project describes itself on its website as "a group of patriots with conservative values (who) condemn the corruption and overspending in all areas of state and federal government. Our mission is to reverse our country's trend toward socialism and to return our Republic to Constitutional Law."

White said she has reviewed several books on the original list of 37 that CCDF's Church spoke to Heid about in December and was on a Florida Citizens Alliance team about two years ago that reviewed books.

"There are some books with some seriously objectionable material in them," White said. "My opinion is that adults shouldn’t be reading them."

Defining obscenity and pornography

Nora Pelizzari, director of communications for the National Coalition Against Censorship, explained to The Ledger that pornography is different from obscenity.

“Pornography requires that the work be essentially intended to arouse,” Pelizzari said.  “Pornography must be created to appeal to the prurient interest, so pornography’s goal is sexual arousal. Individual images are not what we’re judging here. So those images have to be viewed in the context of the book in which they exist.”

Pelizzari said, under the law, a line or image or sexually explicit chapter does not render an entire piece of literature obscene or pornographic.

“Obscenity requires that the work as a whole does not have literary or artistic value, so if these books are largely award-wining, acclaimed, well-reviewed books that contain some sex imagery, but the books themselves hold quite a bit of value – and when that imagery is read in the context of the entire story – the value of the story is greater than the existence of some incidences of sex,” Pelizzari said.

The National Coalition Against Censorship wrote in an editorial in October 2016 that “terms like ‘sexually explicit’ and ‘pornography’ are so subjective as to be essentially meaningless. They can be applied to Hustler and National Geographic, 'Madame Bovary' and 'Fifty Shades of Grey.' This kind of material is also protected speech, unless it’s obscene. To be obscene, a book would have to be ‘patently offensive,’ ‘appeal to the prurient interest,’ and, most critically, ‘lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.’ Some explicit and pornographic content might qualify as obscene, but not all – and certainly not books like 'Beloved'...”

Pelizzari said the people who are filing the complaints nationwide are a mix of genuinely concerned parents who have had issues with a number of things, including mask mandates, vaccines and school closures during the pandemic. But she added that groups like Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn at Education, and The Heritage Foundation “seem to be connected to each other and this larger conversation. A lot of these groups like to portray themselves as grassroots, which feels disingenuous.”

She said her group is far more concerned about the impact these groups are having, whether they're well-meaning or not.

“The problem is when this becomes a push for school boards to violate their own policies or bring criminal charges against libraries and intimidate them into submission,” Palizzari said.  “When a parent concerned about their own kid attempts to control what all kids learn, that's when it crosses a line beyond a personal expression of belief and becomes an attempt to dictate what other people are allowed to think. And becomes a violation of free expression and an authoritarian, undemocratic approach to discussion debate, and education.”

She added that Polk County is participating in a ban, even if they’re calling it a temporary quarantine.

“In your case in Polk, one thing that we’re very concerned about is the removal of the books during the review process,” she said. “Whether or not they like to use the term ‘ban,’ the effect is the same because students cannot currently access those books. If you remove the book before that review is complete, you give precedence to the personal opinion of the person who filed the complaint. And you privilege the hecklers, essentially, by removing the book from all kids while you decide if all kids should have access to it.”

'Quarantined' books in Polk

The 16 books range from the illustrated novel “Drama,” about the production of a middle school musical and the teenaged angst that goes along with budding romances – including homosexual ones – to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel “Beloved,” which details the excruciating physical and sexual trauma a family of slaves endures for decades.

The books under review in Polk County include:

  • “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan

  • “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini

  • “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer

  • “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher

  • “The Vincent Boys” by Abbi Glines

  • “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberley

  • “Real Live Boyfriends” by E. Lockhart

  • “George” by Alex Gino

  • “I am Jazz” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings

  • “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier

  • "Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult

  • “More Happy Than Not” by Adam Silvera

  • “Beloved” by Toni Morrison

  • “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison

  • “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins

  • “Almost Perfect” by Brian Katcher

CCDF did not respond to repeated emailed and phone requests to provide exactly what they found offensive in each work, along with any passages from the books. However, the school district provided the Florida Citizens Alliance documents through a public records request.

CCDF leader Jimmy Nelson told The Ledger on Jan. 26 that “the books speak for themselves,” adding that the books are “not appropriate for any age level,” let alone children.

Regina Bratton, a spokesperson for the American Conservative Union and an executive producer for the Conservative Political Action Conference, commended CCDF-USA.

“So many school districts around the country have become woke; pushing (critical race theory), gender confusion, and other harmful, radical leftist agendas,” Bratton said. “It is important for parents to have a prominent role in the education of their children.”

CCDF-USA's Nolte said they have gotten a lot of support from parents and residents, but did not reply to a request asking for copies of any emails they had received.

On Twitter, Brandon Cain said no one was banning all freedom to read.

“But there are age-appropriate restrictions,” he wrote. “analogy: give children bicycles, not automobiles. If reprobates want to raise their kids reading sensationalized sex/violence, ok. but leave it out of school” libraries.

Despite Florida Citizens Alliance's assertion of pornography, the United States Supreme Court has upheld schools' rights to allow books of their choosing in their libraries.

No exceptions: 'The law is the law'

According to Florida State statute  a book can be labeled as obscene if it "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."

Flaugh said these works lack any merit.

"So, taken as a whole, are those materials germane to that? And I would argue no," Flaugh said. "That’s an area where state attorneys are going to have to interpret that, not school districts. If they want to get an opinion from a state attorney, then be my guest."

Flaugh said one solution to the issue would be to have a strong opt-in policy for parents, rather than an opt out policy.

Polk County Public Schools' has a computer system called Destiny that allows parents to control what books their children can read by opting them out of any title they wish.

While some titles on the list of 16 books aren't well known to the general public, some are award-winning works or written by award-winning authors and recognized as literary classics. When asked if students enrolled in high school advanced placement English classes should have access to these books in school libraries, Flaugh said the law is clear and does not give exceptions.

"Under the law, if they’re going to follow the letter of the law, then those materials would not be acceptable," Flaugh said. "If they’re dual enrolled in a college and the college is providing those materials – yes. Then they’re taking college level classes from a university. I wouldn’t necessarily encourage it, but under the law that would be fine.

"We would argue aggressively that the law is the law and it does not allow for interpretation by government schools," Flaugh said. "If they want to change the law, then do so."

Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger. 

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Literature or pornography? Battle over school library books hits Polk