Both chambers of the Florida Legislature this year unanimously approved a bill that encodes the nation’s first state-sanctioned definition of anti-Semitism into state law and requires schools and universities to regard anti-Jewish rhetoric – such as denying the Holocaust happened – the same as racism.
While leading a state trade delegation to Israel in late May, Gov. Rick DeSantis symbolically signed House Bill 741 into law in Jerusalem, making anti-Semitic statements in an educational setting, including Holocaust denial, a form of hate speech punishable by civil and, in some cases, criminal penalties.
The first case where the new law could be applied in disciplinary action may be unfolding in Palm Beach County where a high school principal is under fire for telling a parent the Holocaust is not a “factual, historical event.”
Since Spanish River High School principal William Latson made the statement in April 2018, disciplinary measures outlined under the new law may not apply.
Regardless, state lawmakers – including bill sponsor Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay – are demanding Latson be fired.
Latson’s comments in the email exchange surfaced in a July 5 article by Andrew Marra in The Palm Beach Post.
The exchange occurred when a student’s mother emailed Latson inquiring how the Holocaust was taught and requesting to review the curriculum because she felt it to be “a priority” for her student to learn about it in an academic environment.
The Palm Beach County School District, which includes Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, has a large Jewish population.
In his reply, Latson said the school provides “a variety of activities” for Holocaust education, but added the lessons are “not forced upon individuals as we all have the same rights but not all the same beliefs.”
The mother – who was not identified – asked Latson to clarify his comments, noting, “The Holocaust is a factual, historical event. It is not a right or a belief.”
“Not everyone believes the Holocaust happened,” he replied. “And you have your thoughts, but we are a public school and not all of our parents have the same beliefs. I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee.”
The revelations spurred outrage and demands that Latson be fired from Fine and Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, who co-sponsored the Senate version of HB 741.
“We read with dismay Andrew Marra’s July 5th article in the Palm Beach Post, ‘Spanish River High’s principal refused to call the Holocaust a fact,’ in which Spanish River High School Principal William Latson is quoted in email stating that lessons about the Holocaust are ‘not forced upon individuals as we all have the same rights but not the same beliefs,’” Fine and Book said in joint statement released Monday.
“When challenged by a parent who noted the Holocaust is ‘not a right or belief,’ Principal Latson responded, ‘Not everyone believes the Holocaust happened. And you have your thoughts, but we are a public school and not all of our parents have the same beliefs. I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event,’” they continued.
“As we know, the Holocaust happened. Its existence isn’t hinged upon a religious or moral belief system; this genocidal atrocity is a well-documented matter of absolute fact. Because of this truth, Holocaust education has been a requirement of state law since 1994.”
Fine and Book referenced HB 741, stating Latson’s comments are now legally regarded as anti-Semitism and should be treated in the same manner as racism or other forms of discrimination.
“Imagine if Principal Latson had said in an email to an African-American parent that he could not and would not state slavery is a factual, historical event. He would have been gone – one hundred percent justifiably – by the end of the day,” Fine and Book said. “Our law now requires anti-Semitism be treated in kind.”
The pair demand Latson’s “immediate termination” and that the district initiate “a full and complete investigation into how such anti-Semitic conduct could have been tolerated and covered up by the school district’s bureaucracy for more than a year.”
Latson issued an apology Friday.
“I regret the verbiage I used when responding to an email message from a parent, one year ago, did not accurately reflect my professional and personal commitment to educating all students about the atrocities of the Holocaust,” he said in a prepared statement.
Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri Jr. said in a statement that Latson is “being investigated at the highest levels of the district administration.”
On Monday, the Palm Beach County School District said Latson has been reassigned to a district job because “his leadership has become a major distraction.”