A local right-wing group connected to national extremists is working to get LGBTQ books off school shelves in Florida

CCDF-USA, which is connected to extreme anti-LGBTQ groups including Alliance Defending Freedom, has convinced Polk County schools to remove 16 books from school libraries for review

Logos for CCDF-USA, Alliance Defending Freedom, and Turning Point USA with a rip across the middle to reveal an LGBTQ flag with superimposed images of books

County Citizens Defending Freedom USA, a new group formed early last year in Polk County, Florida, has already succeeded in pressuring the local school district into temporarily removing 16 books that deal primarily with LGBTQ topics and reviewing whether to ban them entirely. The group’s alliance with national groups including the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and Turning Point USA (TPUSA) represents growing efforts by larger right-wing organizations with extremist ties to build local networks — and rally parents who are already organizing on Facebook — to pursue their anti-LGBTQ agendas. 

CCDF-USA has focused its efforts on Polk County, where it claimed that school libraries contained more than a dozen books that were “offensive,” included “undesirable, even unthinkable material,” and violated two Florida statutes against obscene and harmful material. Polk County’s school superintendent expressed concern that had these 16 books — which include titles by authors of color, books about LGBTQ issues and people, and stories about other minority groups — been left on shelves, school staff members could have been charged with a felony for “each instance that these books would be checked out.” The schools’ review of these books is underway, though CCDF-USA leaders have admitted that “the book issue has truly just been a strategic move on our part,” as well as suggested that they’re “going to start digging deeper.” The organization has focused on other issues as well, including raising complaints of voter fraud.

LGBTQ books have been a frequent target of extreme anti-LGBTQ groups and figures, who have a long history of fearmongering against LGBTQ people by pushing the myth that there is a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia and falsely claiming that LGBTQ people are trying to indoctrinate or groom children, among other claims. For example, groups such as ADF and Liberty Counsel have repeatedly threatened legal action against schools across the country if they introduce their students to I am Jazz, a children’s book about a transgender girl, and have advocated for bans on books that they have deemed inappropriate or extreme. Now, right-wing media and Republican officials in states like Florida are joining these groups in calling for such books — and some others related to race — to be banned from schools altogether.

CCDF-USA seized on a Polk County anti-mask Facebook group

CCDF-USA, originally known as County Citizens Defending Freedom - Polk County, FL, was incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation in early March 2021. Shortly thereafter, the group began developing its social media presence on Facebook and later on Twitter and Instagram

Its Facebook page is now affiliated with a network of six Facebook groups focusing on counties in Florida and Texas, including:

Sometime in April, CCDF-USA leaders Jimmy Nelson and Steve Maxwell connected with Polk County parent Hannah Petersen after she started an anti-mask Facebook group called “No more mask mandates for children.” Petersen had publicly claimed that the group had attracted 3,000 members in the first 17 hours and that she was planning a rally for April 27 to protest the school district’s mask mandate. 

Petersen announced CCDF-USA’s involvement to her Facebook group on April 14, writing that “we now have the backing of a very strong and powerful organization” and noting that even if Polk County officials “do lower the mandate” before the planned rally, her group would “continue to fight for ALL PARENTAL rights as a group.” 

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Petersen continued to plug CCDF-USA and the future of “this movement” in Polk County on her Facebook page, and Nelson and Maxwell introduced CCDF-USA at the April 27 rally. By August, Petersen changed the name of her Facebook group to “We the Patriots-Polk County” and told the members that most of her posts going forward would be related to CCDF-USA. She is currently CCDF-USA’s affiliate executive director overseeing Polk County.

CCDF-USA promoted Florida’s anti-LGBTQ “Don’t Say Gay” bill

CCDF-USA has promoted Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, since early March. A lot of the group's posts have insisted that this bill doesn’t actually say “don’t say gay,” even though it in effect prohibits or dramatically discourages discussions of gender identity and sexuality in some Florida classrooms.

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CCDF-USA is involved in “election integrity” efforts to audit voting machines and promote election misinformation

In addition to the group’s work to remove school library books and oppose public health policies, CCDF-USA also focuses on local elections and finances in Polk County. 

According to The Ledger, CCDF-USA board members met with Polk County elections supervisor Lori Edwards in August and October and requested “permission to inspect the equipment and capture what it calls a ‘forensic audit,’ a copy of the program’s functions.” 

Additionally, the group shared 22 affidavits with Edwards’ office that raise questions about voter registrations and provided a list of about 1,000 voters to be removed from the maintenance log due to inactivity. Edwards said her office reviewed the affidavits and the list from CCDF-USA and found no evidence of fraud. 

In December, Edwards told the paper she was still in discussions with CCDF-USA, but made it clear that she was “not going to allow any inspections that could compromise Polk County’s election systems.”

In January, CCDF-USA hosted Phil Waldron on its podcast to talk about “election integrity.” Waldron is a retired U.S. Army colonel known most recently for reported involvement in developing a presentation outlining various ways to overturn the 2020 election; the document was shared among White House officials and Republican members of Congress ahead of the certification of election results on January 6, 2021.

During the interview with CCDF-USA, Waldron said that he first became concerned about election integrity issues “by mistake,” through doing research about the “Marxist, socialist movement to -- basically to overthrow our republic.” He went on to invoke baseless conspiracy theories that antifa, Black Lives Matter, and billionaire philanthropist George Soros worked to interfere with the 2020 election. 

On March 14, CCDF-USA announced on Facebook that it will begin offering “monthly Poll Watcher training classes leading up to the August primaries.”

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Fringe right-wing media are amplifying CCDF-USA and its efforts in Polk County

Fringe right-wing outlets One America News Network (OAN) and Newsmax have hosted CCDF-USA leaders, including Jimmy Nelson or Sean and Hannah Petersen, at least three times. 

In May, Newsmax featured Hannah Petersen at least twice. In one appearance, Sean Petersen (her husband) and Jimmy Nelson also joined her.

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In June, OAN interviewed the Petersens and discussed CCDF-USA’s lawsuit against the Polk County School District’s mask mandate.

Tweet showing CCDF-USA's Hannah Petersen on OAN

Other right-wing outlets, such as LifeSiteNews and pro-Trump businessman Mike Lindell’s Frank Speech, have also hosted the group’s leaders – and that's just the start of CCDF-USA’s ties to fringe figures and extreme organizations.

CCDF-USA is allied with right-wing groups and figures, including extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom

The organization claims that it is focusing its efforts “locally,” but it also boasts ties to — and echoes the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric of — right-wing state and national groups. CCDF-USA lists ADF, Liberty Counsel, Turning Point USA, America’s Future, Florida Citizens Alliance, Patriot Academy, and Liberty Pastors as its “partners.”

Alliance Defending Freedom

Beyond listing ADF and Liberty Counsel — two extreme anti-LGBTQ groups with legal and political influence — as organization partners on its website, CCDF-USA has also repeatedly boasted about its ties to ADF. 

Chairman Steve Maxwell mentioned CCDF-USA’s partnership with ADF at the April 27 rally, and also described the group’s involvement with ADF during a radio interview, noting that the group is talking to ADF every day for legal advice and even getting “legal advice on every issue that's coming up” with regard to the school boards. 

#WYNK with Steve Maxwell | April 24, 2021 #ProAmericaReport

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Citation From the April 24, 2021, edition of The Pro America Report with Ed Martin

STEVE MAXWELL (CCDF-USA CO-FOUNDER AND CHAIRMAN): How do we get our people involved? They're busy. So we came up with the Amazon activist, and we said, “OK, what do we need to make this thing really impactful?” First of all we need to have sources that can help us do the time consuming work and we reached out to Turning Point USA and they were happy to help us. They’ve got over a thousand chapters nationwide — great young people, bright minds. And they — most of this work is done online. We have sunshine laws here in Florida. Everything’s here. And they began doing the research. We also reached out to [UNINTELLIGIBLE], we've got great media contacts now. We can get out with a phone call to 15 — you know, 500 different media outlets, so we want to use that as a hammer on our side and say, “OK we found the issue,” we take the issue to our board and the board says, “OK, what's the direction we take?” And we take Matthew 18. We are not here to be nasty, ugly, but we're here to be real and we're here to be effective. So we're going to go to the source, try to get this – try to get it rectified, whatever the issue is. If they don't want to change, such as in the school board, they don’t want to change, then we're going to take the next step. The next step is we're going to go local with media and then after that we're going to go to 500 media outlets and get the story out there and put the public pressure on. 

But on the flip side, if that doesn't work, we have Alliance Defending Freedom. Most of our core values are mirrored up with their core values. So we literally are talking to ADF every day — legal advice on every issue that's coming up, and they are willing — matter of fact, they will be at this board meeting on Tuesday. They are here to defend us and our — what we wanted to do is — our citizens feel like — and I’m going on and on here — our citizens feel totally unprotected. And so we wanted to come to a local arena and say, “We are here to defend you.”

Notably, an announcement for an event with Maxwell claimed that CCDF-USA and ADF, along with Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, were “filing lawsuits against the county and the schools (and board members), fighting CRT, the trans curriculum, and more.”

On June 3, the group hosted ADF President and CEO Michael Farris as a guest speaker for its monthly meeting in Polk County.

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Turning Point USA 

CCDF-USA’s leaders have also repeatedly boasted of their ties to TPUSA, including at Petersen’s April 27 anti-mask mandate rally, where Chairman Steve Maxwell introduced his organization, specifically noted how the group will work with TPUSA, and even acknowledged members of TPUSA who attended the event.

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Citation From the April 27, 2021, anti-mask rally in Polk County, Florida

STEVE MAXWELL (CCDF-USA CO-FOUNDER AND CHAIRMAN): Now, you've got someone who will defend you. You give us a call. You get in contact with the CCDF and we are going to stand for you and your rights. We’ve aligned ourselves with two powerful platforms. One is Alliance Defending Freedom. The second is Turning Point USA. Do we have our Turning Point folks here today? 

Yes, awesome. With Turning Point, we have an army of interns who will do the consuming work required that we don’t have time to do. These amazing young people are unbelievable to watch them work. They are going to shed light on our county leaders and once we find policies and decisions that do not measure up with our founding documents, we take those issues to our board, who will determine the course of action. We will expose the enemies of freedom with a powerful media presence, with over 500 media outlets that we have access to, and we will also expose them to our local media. 

And if that doesn’t work, if public pressure does not work, we have Alliance Defending Freedom, which is a group of almost 4,000 Christian attorneys in our nation, who just won their 61st case at the Supreme Court. When these guys — hey, when Alliance Defending Freedom shows up, they bring the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. They are in it to win it. We are going to connect you to those people, those great people, and if we have to go to the mat, we’re going to the mat all the way to the courthouse.

CCDF-USA has also claimed to have 2,500 TPUSA campus chapters to support its research, and on July 8, the group hosted TPUSA co-founder Charlie Kirk as a virtual guest speaker for its monthly meeting in Polk County. That same month, Hannah Petersen posted a photo of herself, her husband Sean, and former White House press secretary and current Fox host Kayleigh McEnany at TPUSA’s “Student Action Summit,” where Petersen’s brother Seth Jahn was a featured speaker.

Michael Flynn and his organization America’s Future

On May 20, CCDF-USA hosted Michael Flynn — disgraced former national security adviser to President Donald Trump — for a “sold out private tour” of its new headquarters in Polk County. Flynn now serves as the chairman of America’s Future, which CCDF-USA lists as a partner organization.

In August, Hannah Petersen interviewed Flynn about his views on the current “pulse of the nation” and his support for CCDF-USA. In the interview, Flynn falsely claimed that the European Union recently reported 25,000 people had died from taking the COVID-19 vaccine. He also warned that we are “being forced” to live in a “compliance society” because even though “the people of this country have lost total faith, total confidence, and total trust in many of the institutions of government,” the government “absolutely doesn't trust that you and I can make our own decisions.”

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Citation From the August 27, 2021, County Citizens Defend Freedom interview with Michael Flynn

MICHAEL FLYNN (FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER): We’re in a new era right now. We’re in a new history. We’re not in a place where we have been, OK. We are not founding a new nation like our founders did. We are re-founding, we are going to have to re-find this nation. And I don’t know what that means yet. I am giving it very serious thought. But we are in a re-founding of the United States of America era of history, and if we, if we as citizens — back to CCDF-USA — if we as citizens don’t get involved in the local levels of our government institutions, at the school board level, or at the county level, in the townships, in the parishes of our country, then we’re going to lose this country. We’re going to lose this country to, you know, a word — because I’m not a big-word user — but, an oligarchy, OK, and look it up, for those that watch this. It is a body of a few that essentially controls the many, OK. And that’s what it is. So, and we have that structure because our political class in this country, which is not something that our founders ever wanted to occur, has — and we’ve allowed ourselves to be complacent as citizens in this country, we’ve allowed ourselves to take our freedoms for granted, and now we are where we are.

Florida Citizens Alliance

CCDF-USA also has ties to the Florida Citizens Alliance, a state organization that has reportedly been “working on having books removed from libraries for at least the past five years.” 

In fact, as The Ledger reported, CCDF-USA filed over 100 pages of complaint forms about the 16 now-quarantined books in Polk County schools with the county superintendent. The complaint forms weren’t the usual Polk County school forms, but were templates from the Florida Citizens Alliance and were “filled out by people from all over the state — but it appears no one from Polk County.” 

Florida Citizens Alliance is a proponent of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Notably, the group has previously worked with Republican state Sen. Dennis Baxley, a sponsor of the bill, writing another education-related bill for him in 2019.

Patriot Academy

At a “Defend Freedom Event” on January 29, CCDF-USA’s Steve Maxwell appeared on stage with former Texas state Rep. Rick Green (R), who is also a founder of Patriot Academy — an initiative of Christian nationalist and extreme anti-LGBTQ organization WallBuilders. On March 3, CCDF-USA announced that it would be partnering with Green and Patriot Academy. 

On CCDF-USA’s podcast, Green claimed to have started Patriot Academy after working as a Texas state legislator to fight against the “Marxism that was infiltrating the education system” and against government-mandated vaccines “20 years ago.” He went on to warn against the “left-wing San Francisco cabal in charge of the Democrat party” and potential civil war.

CCDF-USA's Liberty USA: How Do You Bring Our Nation Back To The Founding Principles? Rick Green Knows

CCDF-USA Liberty USA logo
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Citation From the March 3, 2022, edition of CCDF-USA's Liberty USA podcast

RICK GREEN (PATRIOT ACADEMY FOUNDER): But now for 60 years, we've allowed the federal government to slowly but surely take over the education system even though we never gave them permission to do that under the Constitution. Why did we allow that to happen? Because we didn't know that they have no authority there. So we didn't know to stand up and say, “No, that's a bad idea. We shouldn't allow that to happen." 

So it’s vital to saving the country, and honestly Lindsey, I think we’re going to tear ourselves apart if we don’t get back to the Constitution. I mean, we’re trying to make everyone in the country the same. And so, if the Democrats take over in Washington, especially with this left-wing San Francisco cabal in charge of the Democrat party, then they try to make everybody in America fall in love with Marxism and socialism. And so instead of San Francisco being allowed to do that, but then in Texas and Florida, like you said earlier, us being allowed to be free and if other states wanna be less than free, that’s their decision — instead of having that kind of federalism where each state can decide on its own, they’re trying to make — trying to use the federal government to make everyone the same.

And Republicans do it too. So then when Republicans get in office, too often they don’t understand federalism, and they try to make all the states like they want it to be. Well, that’s a bad system. That’s not what our founding fathers gave us. If we come back to the actual Constitution, we can keep this country together. But if we don’t come back to the Constitution, I’m afraid we’re headed to either civil war or just a complete separation where all the states are going to say forget it, we don’t even want a federal government anymore, which honestly makes it very difficult for us to deal with the international landscape, with China and everything else.

So I don’t mean — this is not an exaggeration, when I say if we don’t restore the Constitution, we’re going to lose our country completely and potentially end up in a civil war. It’s that important.

Patriot Academy’s Board of Advisors includes WallBuilders’ David Barton, Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver, former Texas state Rep. Suzanna Hupp (R), and current Texas state Rep. Matt Krause (R). In fact, Krause used his position as the chairperson of the state House General Investigating Committee to launch an investigation last year, generating a list of about 800 books about racism, gender and sexuality and demanding that Texas schools report whether they have them on their shelves.

Liberty Pastors

On March 3, CCDF-USA also announced it would be partnering with Liberty Pastors, writing in a Facebook post, “If you are or know of a pastor, we highly encourage you to engage in this network.”

CCDF-USA announcing new partners on Facebook

Liberty Pastors and its founder Paul Blair have historically celebrated affiliations with extreme anti-LGBTQ operatives and organizations, in addition to former and current Republican officials. Notably, the group has ties to the extreme anti-LGBTQ group Liberty Counsel and its founder Mat Staver.