Katie Blankenship, Sophia Brown: Advocates are fighting Florida censorship (and winning)

megaphone wrapped in barbed wire. the concept of banning freedom of speech. censorship barbed wire megaphone
The tides are starting to change.

For three years, Floridians have witnessed an unrelenting campaign of censorship under the Ron DeSantis administration. But evidence shows pushback — both from the public and the courts — is opening cracks in an effort that has undermined public education, intruded on free speech rights and created a culture of fear and self-censorship among educators.

A new report from PEN America, Cracks In the Facade: Lessons Learned from Florida’s Ongoing Censorship Campaign, offers evidence that 2024 may bring signs of relief from this censorship campaign. Since 2021, PEN America has been at the forefront of documenting and defending against the unprecedented rise of schoolbook bans and other forms of censorship in schools and colleges across the nation.

Over that period, Florida has become the biggest book banner in the country, where topics of race and American history cannot be taught entirely or accurately and LGBTQ+ stories and identities are pushed out of the classroom — all in the supposed name of liberty and parental rights.

The narrative that Florida leaders are upholding “parental rights” to combat “indoctrination” turned out to be a rhetorical Trojan Horse that allowed the DeSantis administration to reach into homes and schools to control and censor their speech.

Gov. DeSantis has pushed the idea that a culture war was being waged in our schools and that in order for Floridians to retain their First Amendment freedoms, the state would need to become the place “where woke goes to die.”

This pronouncement launched a wave of censorial, discriminatory legislation, including HB 1557, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in K-12 public schools, and HB 7, or the “Stop WOKE Act,” which prohibited instruction on topics regarding racism and sexism in public schools or places of employment.

But the tides are starting to change. This year, lawmakers filed more bills with thematic similarities to the Stop WOKE Act and Don’t Say Gay law: one that would have banned public colleges and universities from displaying LGBTQ+ flags, one that targeted student protesters, and one that would have made it easier for government officials to sue journalists if they criticized them.

Not only did all of these bills fail: they failed within weeks of courts blocking the Stop WOKE Act from being implemented in places of employment, and a settlement against the Don’t Say Gay law that ruled LGBTQ+ issues can be discussed in Florida public schools, and books featuring LGBTQ+ characters can be included in school libraries.

The failings of the DeSantis administration’s anti-”woke” rhetoric are becoming more apparent as courts affirm Floridians’ First Amendment rights, and the public sees that these policies are becoming financial burdens for taxpayers, who in 2022 paid $17 million in legal bills across 15 different lawsuits challenging this same censorial legislation. The year after that, the Florida House and Senate voted to allocate almost $16 million to continue defending inherently broken laws that DeSantis has championed.

This year, the Florida Legislature passed more inherently unconstitutional laws, such as HB 1291, which follows the Stop WOKE Act by prohibiting instruction on racism or sexism in teacher preparation programs. HB 1291 is very likely to face the same expensive and unwinnable litigation as its predecessor — something that legislators are well aware of.

Another new law, HB 3, bans all minors under 14 from social media, and all minors under 16 without a parent’s permission. Even with a parental consent clause, minors across Florida are losing their rights to access and disseminate constitutionally protected speech. The passage of HB 3 is proof that the Florida Legislature has never truly prioritized parental rights, placing the will of the DeSantis administration above the will of the parents that it is meant to serve.

While it is likely these cracks in the facade will continue to deepen, the end of the censorship campaign will depend on Floridians’ determination to protect their own First Amendment rights and push back against state leaders who want to silence our speech, squash our access to information, and undermine public education.


Katie Blankenship and Sophia Brown are staff for the PEN America Florida office; Blankenship is the director, and Brown is the program administrator.

Guest Author


  • Dont Say FLA

    April 11, 2024 at 4:22 pm

    Thank goodness when you look up the word “incompetent” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of Rhonda for a visual of what it means.

    If Rhonda Dee didn’t mess up everything he tried, Florida and perhaps even USA would be in a world of hurt. Thank goodness Rhonda is just a whiny boob.

  • Cheesy Floridian

    April 11, 2024 at 8:31 pm

    I hope that he is wrong and the ballot initiatives will win big time at election time. I hope there are more independent and democrats in the legislature. We need balance.

  • Teresa E Testa

    April 18, 2024 at 8:17 am

    I am a retired teacher. I have been appalled with the political climate of Florida against free speech and expression in the classroom. Sickened by the dismantling of our education system to further political gain for DeSantis and his Republican entourage. The rights of students are being taken away. The ability of teachers to teach students how to think for themselves are being replaced with new laws and mandates from the state and county, that basically tie the hands of teachers and bind them to a curriculum that leaves out history and marginalizes whole segments of our population. All of our rights have been in jeopardy since DeSantis took office. Banning books and forms of speech are just the beginning. Be vigilant, be aware and sure to use your voice and Vote, I know I will.

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