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Republican lawmaker warns Broward libraries’ ‘I read banned books’ effort could prompt retaliation

By Anthony Man, South Florida Sun Sentinel
Published: May 27, 2023, 6:00am
2 Photos
The Broward County library system offers "I Read Banned Books" library cards as one of the card options to patrons.
The Broward County library system offers "I Read Banned Books" library cards as one of the card options to patrons. (Anthony Man/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS) Photo Gallery

A Florida public library system’s “I Read Banned Books” library cards are drawing concern from a Republican lawmaker who said the county agency is engaging in “a political stunt” with taxpayer money and warned it could generate financial retaliation by the state.

The Broward County Library system has promoted several initiatives to counter what the American Library Association, PEN America and other free-speech advocates warn is a dramatic increase in book bans and restrictions.

In Broward:

  • “Book Sanctuaries” are located in each of the counties’ 37 branch libraries. They’re described as “designated areas where endangered stories will be protected and made accessible for exploration or check out.”
  • A panel, “Freedom to Read: Intellectual Freedom in a Healthy Democracy,” is scheduled for Wednesday evening at the African American Research Library & Cultural Center. Free copies of two books that are being banned nationwide will be distributed.
  • Library cards proclaiming “I Read Banned Books” and including the county library logo and picture of flames are available to residents. People aren’t forced to take the “banned books” cards; other options are offered.

State Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, objected to the “I Read Banned Books” cards.

“I don’t want to see Broward County (penalized) for a political stunt, which is what it is,” he said Tuesday in a phone interview.

LaMarca suggested that the county agency’s actions could jeopardize state funding for Broward.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has the authority to veto individual items from the state budget, has not yet acted on the $117 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. LaMarca said a quick glance at the state budget shows it contains more than $53 million for libraries.

“My concern is for Broward County. I’m always in support of the libraries and cultural arts,” LaMarca said, adding he would argue against any attempt to reduce funding for any program in Broward County because of the cards or the county library’s promotion of them on Twitter. “It wasn’t a threat. I don’t have a veto pen,” adding he was “not saying” the governor would retaliate.

But, he said, it was ill advised. “Just give them a regular library card,” LaMarca said.

LaMarca said he normally wouldn’t weigh in on county library issues in his current position as a legislator, but “I was amazed that that was out there.”

County Commissioner Nan Rich, currently the county’s vice mayor, praised library director Allison Grubbs for the “banned books” library cards and the book sanctuaries.

“This is about ensuring freedom and not eroding our democracy,” Rich said, adding that banning books can lead to burning books, hence the fire on the cards. “We have history to show us what happens when you do things like this.”

Rich rejected LaMarca’s concern that the county’s action might inflame the governor. “It doesn’t matter whether you poke the bear or don’t poke the bear. He’s going to continue to move forward with his authoritarian ideas and erode our democracy.” She said the cost of the library cards was miniscule since the county has to have library cards regardless of the imagery.

“This is our public library. I think we have to really kind of throw down the gauntlet as a public library,” said County Commissioner Beam Furr, a former high school librarian. “We’re not going to be bullied on what we’re going to put on our shelves.”

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Furr said librarians are professionals who create collections that appeal to a variety of tastes and viewpoints, and people can make up their own minds. “There’s going to be some books that might not be someone’s cup of tea. Then don’t read it.”

Broward is the most heavily Democratic county in the state, and LaMarca is the only Republican elected to a partisan office in the county. All the other officials elected in Democratic vs. Republican contests are Democrats, including all nine members of the County Commission.

The County Commission is in charge of the library system. LaMarca is a former two-term county commissioner.

LaMarca said Broward County has an added burden when it comes to securing money and legislation in Tallahassee. “I’m the one who has to answer, ‘Hey, you’re from Broward County’ when the Democratic-dominated county does something that arouses the ire of people in Tallahassee.

Representatives of the county library system and from the governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to questions Tuesday afternoon.

LaMarca first raised his concerns May 11 on Twitter, responding to the library’s promoting the cards on Twitter.

“Do you think this kind of hyperbole is helpful when you’re soliciting millions of dollars from the State of Florida @BrowardCounty. Asking for the 2M people of Broward,” LaMarca wrote.

After LaMarca tweeted his concern on May 11, the county library system deleted its tweet, a move first reported by the Florida Politics website.

LaMarca said when he ran into County Administrator Monica Cepero at a luncheon last week, who told him she “saw what happened and she took care of it.”

He received pushback and the library received praise on Twitter.

“We are going down a very dangerous path when our elected officials imply it’s too ‘political’ for a public library to celebrate their role in fighting censorship and protecting our First Amendment right to read what we wish,” wrote Cynthia Busch, former chair of the Broward Democratic Party.

Former state Rep. Matt Willhite, a Palm Beach County Democrat, posed this question: “So people should shut up and hope the state will help them? I thought this was the free state of Florida?” The “free state of Florida” is a slogan championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

And Mac Stipanovich, a longtime high-level Florida Republican strategist, who’s left the party and is now a no-party-affiliation voter, tweeted “ Kudos to the Broward County library system. There are times when principle and courage are much more valuable than money, of only because they are in such short supply. This is such a time.”

Books have become a flashpoint in the national culture war.

“In a time of intense political polarization, library staff in every state are facing an unprecedented number of attempts to ban books,” according to the American Library Association. The organization’s Office for Intellectual Freedom “documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago. The unparalleled number of reported book challenges in 2022 nearly doubles the 729 book challenges reported in 2021.”

Florida has been a flashpoint on the issue where DeSantis — as he prepared for his campaign for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — pushed initiatives to curb what he has described as inappropriate materials in schools.

In April, in a news release announcing the availability of the “I Read Banned Books” library cards, buttons proclaiming the same thing, and creation of the book sanctuaries in each library, Grubbs said that “a vital part of my mission is to ensure that freedom to read is not compromised,” adding, that “the right to think, speak and learn freely are foundational values in our democracy and in our libraries.”

The book sanctuaries were established in “celebration of the joy of reading and in support of intellectual freedom.”

A table at a branch library in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday afternoon had copies of 11 books including “The Color Purple,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Catch-22,” “The Sun Also Rises,” and “The Hunger Games.” It was identified by a sign explaining it was “A Safe Space for Stories.”

LaMarca said he hadn’t seen any of the book sanctuaries, so he said he couldn’t assess whether they’re appropriate or not.

On Wednesday evening, Grubbs will moderate “Freedom to Read: Intellectual Freedom in a Healthy Democracy” at the African American Research Library & Cultural Center. The library is on Sistrunk Boulevard, the unofficial main street historically Black community in northwest Fort Lauderdale.

Panelists will explore the history of book banning, the cultural pressures that have created today’s climate and the community’s role in “protecting and preserving fundamental rights in our society,” according to a library system news release.

A Kids Company About, which describes itself on its website as a media company “built on the belief that kids are ready to have challenging, important and empowering conversations with the grownups in their lives” is providing copies of two books that have been banned in some places, “A Kids Book About Systemic Racism” by Jordan Thierry and “A Kids Book About White Privilege” by Ben Sand.

If you go: The free panel discussion, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday is at 2650 Sistrunk Blvd., in Fort Lauderdale. The county is requesting, but not requiring, registration by calling 954-357-6149 or emailing thobbs@broward.org.