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.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.
Diversity isn’t at risk with a book ban. Diversity doesn’t work period. In the end one group always sides with their own that they identify with, be it nepotism, race, religion, etc.. Here’s the reality of even the most diverse of groups. Those individuals will band together & unite for that common cause against what they perceive as a common external to their group enemy. Once that dragon is slain, they’ll create & there becomes internal to their group enemies, those they needed an alliance with long enough to accomplish the objective(s). A power grab from external opponents, turns internal. Each sub group aligns and even those sub-groups will have winners & losers among themselves. If one wants to call that a threat to diversity, it’s really nothing more than racism within a sub group. Go back & watch Survivor episodes ? Two tribes picked for diversity, the goal is to win the game & among themselves they’ll make alliance, eventually breaking those alliances for the sole purpose of winning the game. Lived in Miami for a couple of decades, the city prides itself for the melting pot of diversity. It’s a crock pot of diversity and there are poor in all of it. The truth of the matter is, one race will cut their own out of the share & winnings of the entire group. This is a world where winners & losers are determined by man, the game is quite fixed for who gets groomed for the promotions & success. It’s always been like that really. Diversity is it’s own lottery of sorts. And even that is attempted to be circumvented by nepotism & cronyism of any diverse group. Education is touted as the means & way out. There are many that are quite well educated that never get offered that next level of success, they never will be offered that. Take the 86 that applied for the City Manager position. Al we read was that somehow that entire lot was a settle of inferior candidates ? Anyone reading Flagler Live articles about the government interactions among themselves and keeping a straight face about the “best” candidates already running the show in Flagler isn’t keeping it real. Throw a dart & pick a name, there’s dirt to be found, some of it borderline criminal. I mean if someone can feel threatened or issue threats at a council meeting, we see teens get arrested at school for not much different ? How is there immunity in Government for that, when minors aren’t even getting that level of immunity at school.
Vincent T. Lyon says
That’s a very negative view of humanity and ignores the fact that the “us” in “us and them” has become broader and broader over time. I hope for a world in which “us” includes every human being, and history suggests that’s the way to bet.
I didn’t read all of Jimbo’s comment. I did read enough to get the idea.
So. Pointing out fact is demonstrating a negative view? That explains a lot. Also interesting that it is also equated with exclusion (other than all of us) ?
Listen. The cream doest always rise to the top in a cutthroat power hungry world. And when people cannot see that reality. Unfortunately, some are not fit for polite society and never will be. (Just to be clear, that is what jails are for.)
As to the history of human interactions, some further study is advised.
The term is human nature. It is not to be taken lightly.
George Washington Carver wrote:
We are brothers, all of us, no matter of what race or color or condition; children of the same Heavenly Father. We rise together or we fall together.
He also said:
“If I had all that money, I might forget about my people.”
That word money could have been ‘power’ or many others.
Point being humans are all too often frail and weak. Worse, a small percent are truly evil but even the best can pave the road to hell with good intentions.
How’s that for reality?Negative? Or just plain fact? Glad we can make up our own minds. Denial is not a river in Egypt.
Diversity doesn’t work? In 1971 there were “Whites Only” signs posted above water fountains in the Florida airport I landed in. The N.Y. community I left was a “Whites only, Christians only, stay in the closet gays,” kind of place that sent its clear message without needing signs. I disagree with your thesis. Diversity does work. That doesn’t mean bias and outright prejudice don’t exist. Doing what is right will always land you in the cross hairs. That’s what it takes to progress as a society — bravery.
When people say, ” I didn’t read it (or the whole thing)…” yet plow on with their opinions, that is a problem.
Save me a seat at the next school board meeting! 😊
James M. Mejuto says
What a great piece on books banning and their masters. Pierre told it like it is regarding the banning of independent thought and education.
He did note these two trump-like scoundrels will be running again for school board and it will be our time to negate these them and cast them onto the heap of bigotry and nonsense.
Let’s hope they at the least will pick up one of the books and read it!
Suppose that they get elected back on the school board and others of like minded persons get on as well. What will you say to then. When the school board is not tilted to one side the way it is now.
herewegoagain . says
A great example of: Why I tell people to think twice about purchasing in Palm Coast ..
I have many others, I’ll be you do also ..
It’s SAD when a person “with power” can’t follow the rules & procedures they should
and attempts circumvent the system .
Let us pray that one of them gets the boot in the upcoming election.
Ban them from being Elected again, stop the continuous Drama and get back to the Business of Education. Those two are a distraction and attempting to Lead the Board down their Alleged Righteous path. Stomp it out now.
Someone posted “lets’s pray we get rid of at least one of the in the next election.” Hopes and prayers Do Not get a person out of office—-People do. The best voters are the ones who pay attention to what candidates and incumbents are really doing and get their butts to the pols or absentee ballot and vote them out of office personally. Same thing applies when voting for whom to elect into office.
School libraries are not a place for some reading material, period. And parents should have control of that reading material, period. Equity will never, ever happen as long as people are around, period.
It is amazing to me that, children having access to the internet, someone can actually think that reading a book is not a good idea.
Also, just because people will always be bigots, we shouldn’t fight against bigotry? Why did we bother stopping Hitler with a thought like that?
Parents should be parents and not allow children to access the internet without direct supervision. I guess I should let my 10 year old smoke because there are cigerettes out there. As a parent I should be very involved in my child’s education, and I should have a choice in what they are exposed to. Ever hear the term “age appropriate”?
What does this discussion have to do with Hitler? Have you found a way to control human nature without controlling life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness?
Sandy Gruneberg says
I literally explained to you why a bigot like Hitler has to do with this discussion, but if you really think a child learning about sexuality is as dangerous as smoking it’s going to be above your head
William S says
It must be wonderful to be self-righteous! Mrs. Woolbright fits that title perfectly. I don’t have a problem if she has an issue with a book in the high school libraries. I didn’t have a point when she addressed her concerns with the school Superintendent and School Board attorney. I do have an issue with her impetus move to file a criminal complaint against the Superintendent and attorney before they instigated the procedures to investigate Woolbright’s complaint. This situation has shown Mrs. Woolbright to show contempt for the administrative procedures set in place by the school board to handle these matters. What I see is nothing more than a political move by Mrs. Woolbright to get as much attention as possible in her bid for reelection. However, her nastiness and head-strong tacit hopefully provide enough back blow to end her term as a school board member. For somebody that spent time as a teacher, she is an embarrassment to the teaching profession. Her judgment casts her in an unfavorable light. I really have to wonder about her mental state.
Michael Cocchiola says
Woolbright and McDonald must go in 2022. We know what’s at stake… the freedom to read, explore and learn. Let’s keep the community engaged and take this existential fight to the polls.