Two members of the right-wing activist group Moms for Liberty reported Florida school librarians to law enforcement, alleging they were distributing “pornography” to minors.
According to the online news source Popular Information, Jennifer Tapley, a member of the Santa Rosa County chapter of Moms for Liberty and a candidate for school board in the heavily Republican county, contacted the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office on October 25, claiming to have evidence of a crime.
“Pornography given to a minor in a school,” Tapley said in an audio recording of the call obtained through a public records request. “And I would like to make a report with somebody and turn over the evidence.”
Tapley had made the call from the lobby of the main office of the sheriff’s office in Milton, Florida.
Tapley reportedly refused to provide her name because she was “afraid of people getting mad at me for doing this.” She said she would tell the Deputy Sheriff her name, but didn’t want “any public records with her name on it because then people could look it up.”
Accompanied by fellow Moms for Liberty member Tom Gurski, Tapley waited to be interviewed by Deputy Sheriff Tyler Mabire and another officer.
Gurski and Tapley then provided a copy of the alleged “pornography” — a copy of Storm and Fury, a popular young adult novel by Jennifer L. Armentrout about humans and gargoyles fighting demons.
Gurski told the officer that Storm and Fury had been checked out from Jay High School “by a 17-year-old, which is important because she is a minor.”
“The only reason we are here: A crime is being committed. It’s a third-degree felony. And we’ve got the evidence,” Gurski says in a video shot by the officer’s body camera, obtained by Popular Information, which subsequently posted the full video to YouTube.
“The governor says this is child pornography,” Tapley continued. “It’s a serious crime. It’s just as serious as if I handed a Playboy to [my child] right now, right here, in front of you. It’s just as serious, according to the law.”
The apparent objection to Storm and Fury is that it contains passages with sexual themes, including a few makeout sessions, and one scene where the main character, 18-year-old Trinity, almost has sex.
Despite those few scenes, the Florida Association of Media in Education, a professional librarians’ association, recommended the book as part of its “Teen Reads” for the 2020-2021 academic year.
In Santa Rosa County schools, once a book is challenged for sexual content, the policy is to take the book out of circulation within five days until it can be reviewed — at which time it will either be returned to shelves or purged from the library collections.
In her interview with police, Tapley claimed to have challenged the book and accused the Jay High School librarian of shirking their duty and violating Florida’s “parental rights” law — dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law primarily for its restrictions on LGBTQ-related content — which is supposed to make it easier for any citizen to challenge books for removal from school library shelves.
However, according to Popular Information, the book Storm and Fury — which contains no LGBTQ content — does not appear on the lists of challenged books in Santa Rosa County maintained by the school district and Tapley.
In addition to the librarian at Jay High School, Tapley accused Ruth Witter, the head librarian for the Santa Rosa County school district, of being a member of an organization called “Stop Moms for Liberty,” which works against Moms for Liberty’s censorship efforts.
Tapley presents the officers with a printout of Witter’s Facebook page showing she follows the Santa Rosa County “Stop Moms for Liberty” group. She also attempts to link Witter to alleged “death threats” against Moms for Liberty members, claiming that she doxxed people who complained about sexual content in books.
As Popular Information notes, Witter also follows several conservative pages on Facebook, including Fox Nation and Rhett Rowell, a Republican candidate running for Santa Rosa County Commissioner.
Tapley also complains to police about the librarian at Milton High School, alleging she posted in a Facebook group called Emerald Coast SWEEP, a local chapter of the liberal group Red, Wine, and Blue. She describes Red, Wine, and Blue as a “very liberal activist group of people fighting for abortion rights” whose members also oppose removing books from public school libraries.
Tapley explains that she and the other Moms for Liberty members want the offending books moved out of schools and donated to the public library because parents can accompany their children there and see what they’re checking out.
As an aside, she notes that she’d prefer the books with sexual content “not be anywhere,” but admits that the “compromise” is that they be moved to the public library and out of the schools.
Speaking with Popular Information, Tapley said any book with a “sex scene” constitutes “pornography” and is “inappropriate for minors.” While acknowledging there may be exceptions for “extreme classics,” she claimed the books being flagged lack “significant literary value.”
Under Florida law, a book or other work with sexual content may only be banned from distribution if it is “harmful to minors” or “predominantly appeals to a prurient, shameful, or morbid interest” — a standard established by Supreme Court precedent.
Under Florida law, a book is only deemed harmful to minors if it meets those criteria and is “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable material or conduct for minors.”
It seems to strain credulity that Storm and Fury, which is predominantly about fighting demons and contains limited scenes involving intimacy, is so overly explicit that it would meet the threshold of being “obscene” or “harmful to minors.”
Tapley also downplayed her role at the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office, claiming she was not “seeking out any books and trying to go to the police with it or anything.”
She said she was a “helper” and placed her name on the report “so that somebody else could be protected.” In an email, Tapley said she “had no interactions with the Sheriff’s Office beyond accompanying a citizen there” and “any reporting that states otherwise would be unfactual.”
When asked if she’d like to see the librarians she mentioned to police charged with crimes, Tapley told Popular Information that it “depends on if there’s an intent.”
She said she hoped the sheriff would tell the librarians that they could not continue to allow students to check out books with sexual content, and threaten to bring charges against them in the future if they persist. She added that she “didn’t really want to see anybody have their life ruined.”
The efforts of Tapley and Gurski to initiate an investigation appear to have been unsuccessful, as the sheriff’s office referred the report to Daniel Hahn, the director of safety at the Santa Rosa County Florida School District. The Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office then closed the case.
But Gurski claims, in part of the video, to have taken a separate book from the Milton High School library to the Milton police station, prompting the Milton Police Department to launch an investigation into the book.
In her interview with Popular Information, Tapley identified the book taken to Milton police as Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List, another young adult novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. The book is a romantic comedy with sexual situations and some LGBTQ characters. It has been recommended by Publishers Weekly as appropriate for readers 14 and older.
The Milton Police Department refused to release information on Gurski’s complaint, saying there is an “open and active investigation pending State Attorney review.”
Following the story’s publication, Tapley attacked journalist Judd Legum, the author of Popular Information, saying that the story was a “poorly written tabloid hit piece vomited up by an activist lawyer with a name resembling a most unsavory vegetable.”
She also called Legum, in a Facebook post from her official candidate page, an “oafish donkey,” and accused him of misquoting her and fabricating facts.
“One thing she doesn’t do is substantively dispute anything I reported because, well, it’s all on tape. You can read my reporting and watch the video here,” Legum tweeted.
3. One thing she doesn't do is substantively dispute anything I reported because, well, it's all on tape.
You can read my reporting and watch the video here: https://t.co/mDQWzHYlfr
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) November 7, 2023
Legum also tweeted that he asked Tapley if Moms for Liberty were aware of the police reports to law enforcement. She replied that she wasn’t sure.
However, Legum shared a screenshot of a Moms for Liberty meeting agenda showing that the group planned to discuss the police reports. He then shared a screenshot showing that the national Moms for Liberty organization had blocked him.
4. Note: I asked Tapley if @moms4liberty was aware of the reports she and other members were making to law enforcement.
Tapley says she wasn't sure.
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) November 7, 2023
The author of Storm and Fury, Jennifer Armentrout, lamented that we are “living in an era where, apparently, some adults find it appropriate to contact the police over a fictional book involving gargoyles.”
She also pushed back on criticisms from right-wing groups like Moms for Liberty, telling Popular Information that the book is not intended to “incite sexual excitement.”
PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to free expression, also criticized the push to criminalize librarians for not censoring books.
“To see the orchestrated campaign to remove books from schools escalate to a police station is shocking,” Kasey Meehan, the group’s program director, told Popular Information.
“Professional librarians apply sensible measures to curate their collections for diverse audiences of readers, and they should not be punished for making knowledge accessible to students that falls well short of the well-established legal standards for obscene materials.”
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