For about 1,500 years, the Catholic church maintained what it called the Index of Forbidden Books. The Index consisted of the titles the church considered dangerous to faith and morals. The titles were compiled by official censors. The books themselves were not banned. The church’s authority did not extend to print shops and booksellers, only to its own crypts and bonfires. But the index was a spiked hammer that chilled the exchange of ideas and bred self-censorship. Innumerable books never made it to shop shelves, or into the hands of students and other readers. The index was not abandoned until 1966.
In Flagler County, the index is trying to make a comeback. Its official censors are priestesses and School Board members Jill Woolbright and Janet McDonald. They’re driven by ideology, religious fervor and not a small dose of bigotry hidden behind a burqua of equal-opportunity righteousness. No doubt some of their best friends are gay, Black, transgender and feminist. But the titles they’re hunting are written disproportionately by people of color and sexual orientations that offend their Deuteronomy. On the other hand they’d like nothing better than to build a crusader’s drum tower with the number of apocalyptically awful Tim LaHaye bricks in local school libraries.
Of course there is no such thing as banning a book anymore. Not really. No book ban has been effective since the advent of the paperback, much less in the Internet and Amazon age. A book can be removed from library shelves. If it’s lucky, it can land on the American Library Association’s list of banned or challenged books. But the notoriety only ensures more readers than it could have dreamed of pre-ban. That’s the case with the four books on Woolbright’s current hit list: The Hate You Give, All Boys Aren’t Blue, Speak and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You.
These two censors know the battle is lost regarding these four books. They know too many of us are already making sure the books will be freely available no matter what. Woolbright and McDonald want an index, what amounts to gate-keeping that will chill librarians into becoming their own censors. They want to cast a wide net of pre-purchasing censorship and put that in policy. That’s where the danger is. That’s what no one is paying attention to.
Woolbright made it explicit in her “criminal” complaint when she said she wanted “all young adult books” checked, not just the hit list. If Woolbright and McDonald have their way, there will be no books to challenge, no books to ban, because the books will have been kept from reaching the shelves in the first place. Your school library holdings will look full, but untold books will, in effect, have been banned without you ever knowing, because the glare of controversy will have been masked. We simply won’t know the disappeared books by name. That’s how censorship works best. That’s how the Index worked: by prior restraint. That’s the end game these two board members are imposing on us–that, and Puritan standards that have more to do with Saudi and Pakistani madrassas than American public schools.
The response is simple but essential: advocates of richly diverse and uncensored libraries worthy of all our students must annually draw up their own lists of young adult titles typically recommended by outlets like Publishers’ Weekly and other top trade or mainstream reviewing houses and check them against updated holdings in Flagler schools. If a book that should be on the shelves isn’t there, then trigger a reverse challenge: why isn’t it? What can be done to add it? District policy must ensure that such reverse challenges are accommodated and treated as equitably as conventional challenges are (assuming those challenging a title, unlike Woolbright, follow the rules).
Same goes for any instructional materials, which may be more difficult to keep away from the censors. How will parents know that a resource that had a Black Lives Matter testimony or a chapter on the newly revised and reissued 1619 Project (which should be on every library shelf from middle school and up; I’ll pay for the copies) was kept from teachers’ resource lists?
It’s those vulnerabilities the likes of Woolbright and McDonald seek to exploit. They can draw from endless methods. Censorship is an older profession than prostitution, whose first hominin ad for a good time down by the gorge near Olduvai was censored 1.75 million years ago. Academic freedom is barely a few decades old.
The censors are also using brutal means. Woolbright cast this chill by criminally going after her own superintendent and administration. Where, anywhere in the United States, have you heard of a school board member doing such a thing? It happened mere days after Woolbright’s meeting with the superintendent, where she got an explanation about how book challenges work–and days before the very workshop Woolbright and McDonald requested on those procedures was scheduled to take place.
But Woolbright–who didn’t have much time for cops at one of those board meetings that, thanks to the people in the audience she admires so much, got out of hand–wanted her fabricated scandal. So she ran to the sheriff and filed that shameful complaint.
If disingenuous were an undiscovered continent, Woolbright would be its Columbus. She claims to be looking out for children. She was actually only seizing the stage for some copycat electioneering, as slews of school board candidates are doing across the country (she’s on the ballot next year). She’d never read any of the books in contention. I doubt she ever heard of them. By her own narrative she was watching one of those apocalyptic news networks when she saw a clip of someone reading explicit lines from All Boys Aren’t Blue, twice decontextualized: once by the reader, and again by the network, where context, explanatory journalism or literacy beyond teleprompters are abominations.
Woolbrght was hooked. Without any unorchestrated complaints from parents, let alone students–whose academic rights and liberties should be protected ahead of parents, librarians and school board members–she went on the prowl for these titles in Flagler school libraries. She found them.
Woolbright then flouted district policy, and doing so, insulted the intelligence of every media specialist and principal in whose libraries she found the books. (“We always want for the parent to start right there at the school level with having that conversation which is directly in policy,” Lashakia Moore, the Seneca-like director of curriculum, said, “of having that conversation with the principal and the principal making a determination based on that conversation.”)
Instead of filing her challenges at the schools themselves, Woolbright abused her position as a board member and did what no one else may. She used her regular meeting with Superintendent Cathy Mitteldstadt to demand that the books be immediately pulled and reviewed at the district level. This from the school board member brandishing law and school policy like an AR-15.
It got much worse. She declared herself judge, jury and executioner. First, she declared it a “crime” that the books should be circulating. She had no evidence. She has no training in law. Her rash judgment discredited any literary criticism skills she may possess. That’s why we have reviewing committees of qualified professionals. But this old union hand who swore by due process knew how to flout due process even at the district level. (The district committee has yet to issue its evaluation of the books.)
Building on the false if not defamatory premise of a “crime,” she demanded that those who circulated the book be held “accountable.” Then she flouted the sheriff’s investigation she had asked for. She wasn’t willing to wait for the sheriff’s conclusions as she went on a pair of endless, Castro-like soliloquies of self-pity at Nov. 16 meetings. By then McDonald had joined the witch hunt, adopting Woolbright’s language and unholstering her own limitless expertise in law, at one point in a Nov. 16 workshop actually declaring the Florida statute prevails over U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
It’s a matter of time before these two declare God’s law above the Constitution.
There is hope. At a board workshop on Nov. 5, Trevor Tucker, chairman of the school board, made it clear: “I actually want every type of printed material possible. I’d like students to read everything and anything, whether I agree with it or not. The more someone reads, the more ideas you find, whether you agree with them or not. I just personally think that I do not like going down a road where I’m thinking about a library or media specialist or anybody saying, this is the list of books we can have, this is the list of books we can’t have. I hate that idea.”
If there ever was a crisp statement that sums up what Flagler schools’ policy should be, Tucker’s statement–among the only lines he’s spoken on the subject all month–is it. Two other board members agree: Colleen Conklin and Cheryl Massaro. That’s the majority. It should be case closed. The fact that it isn’t is another example of how the fringe is manipulating the debate and whipping up mercenary bands louder and fouler than their actual numbers–like those who hurled obscenities and invectives at Flagler students outside of the last board meeting, without a condemning peep from their two heroes on the board.
It is time for the enlightened majority on the board to stoically, fairly but decisively put the fanatics in their place, and books back in theirs.