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2023 Right to Read Bills Under Consideration: Book Censorship News, May 5, 2023

Kelly Jensen

Editor

Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

There are dozens of censorship bills under consideration across the country. You can keep tabs on them and their status over at EveryLibrary, who have been diligently tracking them and getting people to write and show up to put an end to them. It will shock absolutely no one to see how many of those book ban bills overlap with 533 bills proposed this year targeting trans people.

But writing about the not good stuff doesn’t always seem to garner the same kind of fervor or action that writing about the (minimal) good stuff does. So this week, let’s look at the four bills underway that are doing the opposite: they’re proposing legislation to protect the right to read and the ability for librarians and educators to provide a diverse array of materials to patrons of all ages.

In other words, these bills will let professionals keep doing the jobs they’re educated and trained to do.

Illinois HB 2789

The Illinois Right to Read bill, written about here, would tie state funding of libraries to their commitment to intellectual freedom. The bill passed through the state House, and this week, passed through the Senate. It will have no problem being signed by Governor Pritzker, making Illinois the first state to legislate against book bans.

New York S6350

Introduced into the New York State Senate in mid-April, this bill would amend the state’s education law to mandate that schools and libraries provide access to a broad range of materials to all students. From the bill’s justification notes:

Democratic self-government depends on a free exchange of ideas and information, and our schools must continue to ensure that ideas and information are available for students to embrace or reject in line with their values and those they learn from their families and communities. This bill helps to protect the freedom to read by ensuring that school boards will continue to provide the broadest range of access to age-appropriate materials in school libraries. The Dignity for All Students Act, as it now stands, prohibits discrimination, harassment, and bullying in schools. This bill amends DASA by adding a guarantee of access to diverse reading materials.

The bill is currently in the Senate education committee. If you’re in New York state, you can and should write your senators in support of this bill. The bill’s website makes it very easy to do just that.

Rhode Island HB 6066

This may be the least discussed bill that places explicit protections on educators and librarians so far. The bill, introduced early in the legislative session, would protect library workers and educators who are falling under attack by book banners suggesting that the materials they make accessible to minors are “obscene” and thus, the professional can be sued for breaking the law. It protects professionals from undue, unjust, and targeted hardship under the guise of providing inappropriate materials to minors.

Unfortunately, the bill has been stalled in the House Committee since mid-March. That does not mean you should not be writing your House representatives if you’re a Rhode Island resident. Quite the opposite — now is when you really write.

US Right to Read Act

If this bill sounds familiar to you, it’s because the bill was initially introduced last fall during the lame duck session, with the pretty open knowledge it was not going to go anywhere.

The good news is that Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ-03) have reintroduced the bill. The Right to Read Act would expand access to school libraries across the country and legislate money to help support their growth. This is crucial, as we know school libraries continue to be first on the chopping block when school budgets are tight….if there was even a school library at all.

A provision of the Right to Read Act is the role of the library as a space where First Amendment Rights are granted to all. In addition to codifying Constitutional Rights as inherent in libraries, the bill would grant protections to librarians and educators who experience the burden of book bans and prosecution for doing their job.

It’s a good bill, and the legislators timed it well to coincide with National Library Week and School Library Month in April. But will it go any further than it did last time? That remains to be seen, especially as the right pushes harder and has more financial resources to back bills like HR 863, which aims to do just the opposite and criminalize the professionals doing their job.

Bonus: Prison Libraries Act

Prisons are the number one place of censorship in the United States. Despite more mainstream coverage of censorship clawing its way through public libraries and schools, this reality of First Amendment Rights violations of those experiencing incarceration continues to be ignored or overlooked completely. We know access to books and reading is directly related to ending recidivism, but in a county where the prison industrial complex is an epitome of capitalist values, it’s easier to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Fortunately, U.S. Representatives Emanuel Cleaver, II (D-MO), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), and Shontel Brown (D-OH) have introduced a bill that would expand prison libraries and open up the opportunities for those experiencing incarceration to better themselves. This bill would authorize $60,000,000 over six years for state prisons to provide library resources and services — indeed, this isn’t just about dropping tons of books into the prisons and moving on. Trained professionals would be there to help people use the educational and entertainment resources. The Act would also help build powerful coalitions between prisons and the local libraries in their community.

On a personal note for this one: as an author, I’ve had the privilege of doing dozens of book events across the country. They’ve been at professional organization conferences, at indie bookstores, at book festivals, and more. But the singular most impactful event — one I would do again and again in a heartbeat — was at a teen juvenile detention facility. Connecting with kids who so many have written off was powerful, and it was equally powerful to see other adults, from those who worked in the facility to the coordinators of such visits outside the facility, deeply passionate about helping these young people feel seen, cared about, and nurtured.

Every single person deserves that, and books so often are bridge which allows it to happen.

Book Censorship News: May 5, 2023