The Arizona passed two bills this week that continue the nationwide trend of educational gag orders.
House Bill 2161, the “parental rights” bill, allows parents to sue educators and school staff if they believe those individuals interfere with the “fundamental rights of parents to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health” of their children. Parents would have full access to every record the school keeps on students’ wellbeing, including those otherwise kept confidential. The bill goes further to allow parents to sue anyone but law enforcement for encouraging or coercing those under 18 from withholding information from their parents.
Democrats argued this bill would discourage students to seek help for mental health issues, including suicide ideation, from school counselors. It would also deter students from abusive households from disclosing that in an effort to find safety or resources through the school.
The second bill, House Bill 2439, would require schools to list all new books acquired for their libraries be posted on their website for sixty days. It also gives parents access to all library records of minors.
Senate Democrat Martin Quezada said during Monday’s vote that parents should already have these relationships with their kids and it’s not the responsibility of the school to do this work for them.
“The best way to find out what your kid is reading in school, or what they’re checking out from the library is just to talk to them. If you can’t establish that relationship with your own child, and they don’t want to tell you what they’re reading, then that’s emblematic of a bigger problem. Not the fact that the school isn’t telling you. That’s a problem between you and your child,” he said. House Bill 2439 also notes that library books and materials may be subject to the same public input and feedback as textbooks.
House Bill 2439 is a prime example of where and how soft/quiet censorship will flourish. Books in school libraries are readily findable via online catalogs, but the bill’s requirement to provide a list of all new books acquired will put professionals in precarious positions: purchase a book which may be “controversial” to a small subset of vocal and well-connected right-wing parents and community members and risk their jobs or simply choose not to purchase the book. This is the precise kind of legislation groups like Moms For Liberty hopes to see spread nationwide, as now it is the responsibility of library professionals to determine what is–and is not–“controversial” by their community.
“Controversial” is, of course, a moving target with no definition.
There are two exceptions granted in this new bill. Schools with no full time librarian do not need to provide such a list, and schools which have agreements with county public libraries. The caveats here, despite sounding reasonable, will inevitably lead to schools choosing not to fully staff their libraries or to outsource that to already-squeezed public systems. This will leave more of the most vulnerable students without access to information they want or need.
Though the bills are separate, House Bill 2161 provides the gateway for parents to sue educators and librarians for the materials made available in classrooms if they deem it inappropriate. Both bills also destroy a student’s right to privacy and confidentiality and are a step toward Arizona crafting legislation similar in nature to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The bills passed the Senate along party lines. Both bills will return to the House, then head to Governor Doug Doucey for signature.
Last week, House Bill 2495, stalled in the Senate. That bill, proposed by Republican Representative Jake Hoffman, would ban “sexually explicit” books in schools. Hoffman continues to urge supporters to reach out to their legislators to get the bill moving forward.