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DeSantis tweaks Florida book challenge law, blames liberal activist who wanted Bible out of schools

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Two years ago, Democrats repeatedly and forcefully warned Republicans and Gov. Ron DeSantis that a new law making it easier to challenge school books was so broadly worded that it would create havoc across the state.

Now they can say, “I told you so.”

DeSantis backtracked on the 2022 law on Tuesday when he signed a bill narrowing its focus. He blamed liberal activists for abusing the law, not the citizens whose objections to certain books account for the majority of book removals from school libraries and classrooms.

“The idea that someone can use the parents rights and the curriculum transparency to start objecting to every single book to try to make a mockery of this is just wrong,” DeSantis said the day before the bill signing. “That’s performative. That’s political.”

Coincidentally, PEN America, a group that fights book bans, issued a report Tuesday saying Florida is responsible for 72% of the books that have been pulled from the nation’s schools in the first half of the current school year.

The organization said liberal activists are not the ones who should be blamed for abusing the law.

“The majority of books that we see being removed are books that talk about LBTQ+ identities, that include characters of color, that talk about race and racism, that include depictions of sexual experiences in the most broadest interpretation of that understanding,” said Kasey Meehan, Pen America’s Freedom to Read program director.

Those challenges are being made by conservative individuals and groups such as Moms For Liberty, Meehan said.

The original law allowed any person — parent or not, district resident or not — to challenge books as often as they wanted. Once challenged, a book has to be pulled from shelves until the school district resolves the complaint. The new law limits people who don’t have students in a school district to one challenge per month.

The PEN America report says Florida is responsible for 3,135 of the 4,349 school book bans in the United States so far this school year. Just this week in conservative Clay County, one person challenged 40 books, Meehan said.

Before dropping out of the Republican presidential primary, DeSantis campaigned heavily on his education platform, including the law giving people more power to challenge books.

“It’s just a big mess that DeSantis created and now he’s trying to disown it, but I don’t know if he’ll be able to distance himself from this because he campaigned on it so hard,” said House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell.

It’s not the only example of the tough-talking governor having to make adjustments to ideology he championed while seeking the White House.

He also has made concessions in the settlement of several lawsuits involving the state and Walt Disney World. The dispute between them erupted in 2022 after the company spoke out against a DeSantis-backed law that opponents dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” The law bans classroom lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation.

The Associated Press asked DeSantis’ office for examples of liberal activists abusing the law and it provided one: Chaz Stevens, a South Florida resident who has often lampooned government. Stevens raised challenges in dozens of school districts over the Bible, dictionaries and thesauruses.

The change to the law “ensures that book challenges are limited for individuals, like Chaz, who do not have children with access to the school district’s materials,” DeSantis spokeswoman Julia Friedland said in an email. She didn’t reply to follow-up emails requesting more examples.

Stevens, who 11 years ago made national news when he installed a Festivus pole made out of beer cans across from a nativity scene displayed in the Capitol, was delighted DeSantis’ office singled him out.

“When they need to make stupid stupider, they send me up. I’m part comedian, I’m part activist, I’m part artist. I just want a better society,” Stevens said. “I’m an idiot, but a smart guy at the same time.”

While DeSantis’ predecessor, current Republican Sen. Rick Scott, allowed what was then called the “free speech zone” in the Capitol rotunda, the rules changed under DeSantis and new barriers were put in place to use Capitol space for political expression. The League of Women Voters and Stevens are among the applicants who have been denied access under the new rules.

“I didn’t realize that I have the power of millions!” Stevens said. “I’m just one guy. I’m an agitator. I know my role in this.”

Driskell pointed out that DeSantis was warned there would be problems when the book ban law passed in 2022.

“We told him so. The Florida House Democrats on the floor — in our debate, in our questioning — pointed out the vagueness in the original law and how it could be subject to abuse,” she said. “Chaz is not the problem. It’s the folks who are taking liberties with the law who are the problem.”

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