A school board meeting in Orlando began in October 2021 with a debate over COVID-19 mask mandates and ended with a book ban.
What happened was this: A right-wing activist read the words “strap-on harness” and “dildo” into the public record out of a book the district had in school libraries.
He was removed from the meeting, but the damage was done. Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir soon disappeared from the school system conservative activist groups cheered.
In response, two Orange County moms sprang into action and have entrenched themselves in the battle over access to information in public school libraries.
Enter Stephana Ferrell and Jen Cousins, founders of the Florida Freedom to Read Project. The two women are intent on galvanizing some kind of grassroots response to the ongoing book bans.
“I do not agree with cancel culture,” Ferrell said. “I don’t find it productive.”
In April the Florida Freedom to Read Project became a registered political committee, which will move the organization beyond its social media handle. The group will be funded by Ferrell, Cousins and personal donations from supporters. The group had $1,800 listed in contributions, according to a June report in the Florida’s elections database.
“We wanted to get the word out to parents in other school districts in regard to what they should be on the lookout for,” Ferrell said.
The group routinely posts online updates of book banning incidences throughout the state, drawing the public’s attention to local efforts to ban, or “shadow ban,” books.
The Orlando book ban is not an isolated incident. School libraries have become a new frontier in the national battle over public access to information.
National and regional news outlets have begun covering the topic, highlighting the work that progressive organizations, such as Ferrell’s and Cousins’, are doing to combat what they label targeted censorship.
Last year, the American Library Association reported a record high of 729 attempts at book bans in the U.S. since the agency began collecting data 20 years ago. But most incidences go unreported, according to ALA President Patricia Wong.
As of mid-September, efforts to ban or restrict access to 1,651 book titles have swept across the nation, according to the ALA and cited by the New York Times.
"Despite this organized effort to ban books, libraries remain ready to do what we always have: make knowledge and ideas available so people are free to choose what to read," Wong says on the ALA website.
Florida Freedom to Read uses GoFundMe to raise money for fundraising events and support opposition to book banning efforts, Cousins said. Their efforts continue to grow in online spaces as they engage in grassroots networking.
“(We are) intent on serving as a resource for parents and students with the goal of protecting students’ right to an education that is for them,” Ferrell said.
But the two moms, Ferrell and Cousins, are working against well-organized, well-funded national efforts to limit access to books available in the classroom.
The effect of certain censorship
Orange County student Kiley Mack worries about the intentions behind banning books.
Mack is a recent graduate of Boon County Highschool, one of Orange County’s 56 public high schools. She attended OCPS School Board meetings with Cousins and Ferrell to protest efforts to ban books.
“Flags are (only) raised when it comes to the representation of queer characters,” the 18-year-old said.
Former President Barack Obama has weighed in on Twitter on the topic, publicly joining in a national effort to galvanize support for keeping books in schools.
“Today, books that shaped my life – and many others – are being challenged in schools, bookstores, and libraries by people who disagree with certain ideas or perspectives,” he wrote in late September. “Often, these ‘banned books’ are written by or feature people of color and members of LGBTQ communities…This year, I’m celebrating Banned Books Week and the freedom to read with people across the country.”
Mack pointed to books that contain sexually charged scenes between heterosexual characters, such as Romeo and Juliet, and what she perceives as the hypocrisy of those books remaining untouched.
Orange County Public Schools have 1,878 copies of Romeo and Juliet, according to public records. Schools in the district had only three copies of Gender Queer.
And with unfettered access to the Internet and phone applications such as Instagram and Tik Tok, students are exposed to information beyond parental control, Mack observed. Yet adults think they can control what young people are learning about.
“Adults aren’t aware of what students are discussing,” Mack said. “(This) boils down to marginalization.”
This story was supported by the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a nonprofit government watchdog organization.