Bill banning ‘pornographic or indecent’ books at Utah schools pass committee

A Republican lawmaker said he knows of dozens of books available in Utah public school libraries that contain passages about sex that “would shock the conscience.”

Another added that nobody wants this kind of explicit content in schools “where, above all, it doesn’t belong”. A third agreed, saying ‘we need to draw a line’ on what students can access because not setting limits guarantees they will stumble upon something inappropriate.

With their support, a legislative committee on Friday passed a controversial bill that would ban all books containing “pornographic or indecent” content from Utah schools, both in libraries and in classrooms.

“I think we know the most egregious things,” said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who is sponsoring the measure. “We can’t leave them there and do nothing.

The proposal, HB374, comes in response to a book ban movement led by conservative parent groups across the country, including in Utah. Here in the Canyons School District, nine books have been targeted. In the Washington County School District, five titles were reviewed and two withdrawn. And in the Davis School District, another list of nine was created by parents.

Most of those considered offensive focus on race and the LGBTQ community, including Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ and ‘Gender Queer,’ a graphic novel about the author’s journey of identity. . Those who oppose the removal of the books say the effort appears to be aimed at silencing minority voices.

But Ivory doesn’t see it that way.

Echoing demands from right-wing parents who he says have asked him to introduce the bill, HB374 “simply seeks to ban material under the state’s definition of pornography.” This was endorsed by lawmakers in 2016, when they declared pornography a public health crisis.

The legislature had previously banned anyone from viewing pornographic material on school grounds, including requiring internet filters to block such sites. Ivory said HB374 was just another addition to this, banning books containing similar material already deemed unsuitable.

The definition of pornography, according to Utah law, broadly includes anything that, taken as a whole, could be considered “harmful to minors” in the depiction of nudity or sexual conduct and anything that an average person finds “appeals to a lustful interest in sex.”

The Ivory Bill makes an exception for textbooks for health and medical courses. But he said on Friday that should apply to all other library offerings and course programs.

After more than an hour of debate, the measure won an 11-to-2 vote in the House Education Committee, with two Democrats opposed.

A fight against “eroticism”

The first bill introduced by Ivory was more controversial.

It originally proposed banning anything with “real or simulated sexual behavior”. And it allowed parents to sue a school for $10,000 if a book they objected to on that basis was not taken down.

As part of the measure approved on Friday, that prosecution provision was removed and the state’s definition of pornography was added as a guideline.

School administrators would also be required to take training from the Utah State Board of Education and the Utah Attorney General’s Office on how to identify prohibited materials. Each school district should then develop a policy to remove them. (Many districts already have a process for hearing complaints about books.)

The state board would also report annually to the Legislative Assembly on any complaints received by schools regarding violations of the ban.

Ivory said he viewed the adopted version as “a first step” in the effort to clean up school libraries.

Several parents from Utah Parents United, a parent coalition that lobbies for conservative policies in schools, including the fight against critical race theory, spoke out in favor of the measure.

Brooke Stephens, the group’s program director, has led the fight against the Canyons School District’s nine books (which are currently still under review) and started a Facebook page where others share what they’ve found. in Utah schools. She spoke to lawmakers on Friday about “Not All the Boys Are Blue” by LGBTQ activist George M. Johnson, which is in some schools here.

The book includes an autobiographical scene detailing an older cousin assaulting the author when he was a young boy. The book’s advocates say it’s a real experience and serves to show readers the signs to watch out for if they fall prey.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Four of nine books that have been removed from schools in the Canyons School District and indicted, November 23, 2021. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin.

But Stephens said it shouldn’t be in front of children who can check it out without their parents’ permission or knowledge. It is not censorship, she added, to suppress explicit and obscene material. Stephens said it’s like calling it a ban on not serving alcoholic beverages in the school cafeteria.

Some parents said school districts were too afraid to remove “eroticism” they knew was inappropriate for fear of being pushed back by civil rights groups.

Washington County School District Superintendent Larry Bergeson said that has been the case in his experience. The Southern District of Utah Board of Trustees decided in December to withdraw two books — ‘The Hate U Give,’ about how police interact with people of color, and ‘Out of Darkness,’ about the relationship between a young Mexican American and a black teenager. boy in 1930s Texas. Bergeson was the deciding vote.

He said the district has since put them back on the library shelves after they “felt under pressure”. He specifically called out the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, which fought for the right of students to access the books.

But Bergeson said he hopes under Ivory’s proposed bill the district will have stronger grounds to get rid of it permanently. Ivory agreed that he intended the bill to give districts more power to remove the materials.

“We have to have the strength, the courage to fight against the presence of these books in schools,” Bergeson said.

Protecting Minority Voices

Librarians and civil rights lawyers who support keeping books on library shelves said the dispute is meant to limit the views students can seek out on their own with a library card, particularly the points diverse viewpoints of historically marginalized groups.

None of the questioned titles, they point out, are required reading — although Ivory’s bill would also apply to the classroom.

If you don’t like a book, don’t let your child read it, parent Jonathan Bejarano said. But he said a group of parents shouldn’t be allowed to limit what each child can check. And that includes headlines, he added, about people like him, Latinos.

He specifically pushed back against the banning of “Out of Darkness”, saying it about people who are underrepresented in literature and their struggle.

One mother said children of color or LGBTQ students should be able to see their identity reflected in books. Ashley Anderson, another parent and arts educator, called it “censorship by a thousand cuts.”

Several said that it is by presenting students with different viewpoints and experiences that they learn. And, they said, the explicit passages are only a small part of each book. One speaker pointed out that Shakespeare often included obscene references in his works and asked if these would also be banned.

Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, an associate professor, said she agreed and was concerned about which stories were being targeted. She voted against the measure, along with Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, a former teacher.

But Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, said he thinks the bill strikes “the right balance” between parents not wanting their children exposed to indecent content and making it too easy to ban any book that might be questionable.

“We should have a high bar for these bans,” he said.

The bill is then submitted for the consideration of the whole House, with one week before the end of the session.

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