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Censorship

Are Librarians Criminals? These Bills Would Make Them So: Book Censorship News, May 3, 2024

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.

Despite years of writing about the reality of book censorship and the experiences of library workers across the country, the average person remains unaware. This is to be expected. The average person isn’t online all the time, isn’t reading every outlet, and isn’t necessarily thinking about their library (public or school) all the time. The average person is going about their day as they normally would. And yet, sometimes a story here will go viral because it is so absurd that the average person not only cannot believe it, but it starts to wake them up about what’s truly happening. That was the case with the recent story about Louisiana’s House Bill 777, which would criminalize library workers or libraries who join the largest professional organization for librarians using taxpayer funds (i.e., one of the most common ways any professional joins their association when they’re employed).

This is far from the only librarian criminalization bill on the docket, though, either in Louisiana or elsewhere across the country. There are many more, some as absurd and some even more absurd. Of course, for anyone who has been paying attention, this has been the goal all along. Not only do these bills aim to destroy public entities like libraries, but simply by proposing such legislation, those behind the bills are contributing to rhetoric around these institutions that harms their public perception. You paint public libraries as drug-infested sex dens (as they have on Fox News), and you get your followers to begin “doing their own research,” bringing them to every Moms-No Left Turn-Local Bigotry Group right there on Facebook for them to join. As we know, simply by joining those groups or looking at them, the algorithm conveniently works to continue feeding people the same messages, damaging their capacity to think for themselves. The thinking is done right there for them.

It does not matter whether these bills pass or whether they even make it to their respective legislative chamber floors. By drafting these bills, legislators play right into the greater scheme and do damage to underpaid, overworked, poorly funded institutions of democracy and civic engagement.

Here’s a look at some of the many of the bills proposed in the first few months of 2024 meant to criminalize or do irreversible damage to public libraries and school libraries. This is not comprehensive, as I’ve pulled some of the most egregious to put a fine point on it. It is as up-to-date as possible.

Don’t just read these, though. If it’s your state, you need to step up and do something. Write letters and emails. Get on the phone with your representatives. For the love of all things holy, vote. If you’re lucky enough not to be in one of these states, you’re not off the hook either. You need to support your neighbors in their work, not undermine it by writing them off as a lost cause because they live in x or y state. Get your letter writing on, get on the phone, and reach out to your own legislators and demand better conditions for these institutions. Amplify these situations within your own networks, too, so that more people understand the gravity of the situation right now.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in nearly four years of this work, it’s that more people write it off as not a big deal or choose to ignore it because that’s a lot easier than engaging with it. But here we are, this far in, and there are professional politicians wanting to sentence librarians to jail, steep fines, and hard labor for daring to become part of their own professional association.

Information is current as of this week. Significant thanks goes to EveryLibrary for tracking this information. Again, these bills specifically address criminalization. They do not showcase the span of other anti-library legislation throughout the country. Because many legislative sessions conclude by mid-May, expect to see more action on many of these bills. You are responsible for reaching out to your representatives to oppose these bills.

Soon, we’ll dive into the states where legislation aims to deprofessionalize library work altogether, be it through banning the American Library Association or otherwise.

This doesn’t happen to the police.

Alabama

The Alabama legislative session runs February 6 until May 10.

  • HB 385: Public libraries and public school libraries would no longer be exempted from criminal obscenity laws. As such, those spaces could face public nuisance charges for distributing obscene material to minors and “material harmful to minors,” a vague-as-hell phrase that could mean anything convenient at the moment. This bill certainly outlines drag and images of drag performances among the things deemed inappropriate. As of early May 2, the bill has passed through the Senate. Note: versions of this bill are the most common criminalization bills right now. Such exemptions have been removed from libraries previously in Indiana, Missouri, and Montana.
  • HB 425: This is a very broad-reaching bill with long-lasting consequences for libraries across the state. First, public libraries and librarians are no longer exempt from criminal prosecution under the state’s Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act, which includes an array of materials fitting whatever the state’s latest interpretation of obscene materials is. Libraries would be prohibited from purchasing any materials from vendors if it has “sexual content,” even if it is published for minors. Libraries that receive any state funding — which is all of them — would be banned from being part of the American Library Association. The state Attorney General and district attorneys could file civil action against libraries and librarians if in violation of this bill, and parents/guardians of minors would be able to file civil action against libraries or librarians out of compliance with the law, as well as seek injunction against libraries who acquire material out of compliance with the law. This bill was only introduced April 4, and it is currently in the House Judiciary Committee.

Arizona

This year’s Arizona legislative session runs from January 8 to May 10.

  • SB1007: Any employee or contractor of a public school or public library is guilty of a class 5 felony if they recommend or reference any “sexually explicit material.” The bill adds an entire page of new guidelines about what materials are and are not allowed in the collection, defining what constitutes things like “sexual conduct” and “sexual excitement.” The bill moved through the Senate and passed through the House, which sent it back to the Senate on April 3.

Georgia

The Georgia legislative session ended March 28. Consider the below worthy of studying because chances are they will reemerge in the next session with slight tweaks and because it should be deeply concerning how state legislatures want to criminalize information professionals.

  • SB88: This bill bans the inclusion of curriculum about gender or gender ideology without prior approval by parents. Those who implement this kind of curriculum are subject to prosecution (in other words, this could be and would be interpreted as librarians wouldn’t be able to have any books about gender or exploring gender identity without permission from the parents of every student in the school). This bill did not go anywhere this session but it’ll likely come back.
  • SB154: School libraries with have or distribute “materials harmful to minors” would no longer be protected from criminal prosecution. This bill did not go anywhere either, but this legislation has been emerging in state after state, meaning it will likely be back.

Iowa

The Iowa legislative session began January 8 and ended on April 21. The status of these bills will remain as is, but again, know them because it is likely they will reemerge in the next session in some capacity.

  • HF510: Information about abortion access that is findable via public or school library computers could open up those institutions to lawsuits if those sites are not blocked immediately. This bill never progressed past the House Judiciary Committee.
  • HF2040: The bill repeals obscenity exceptions for public schools and public libraries in the state. Fortunately, again, the bill did not progress past the House Education Committee.
  • SF2176: Parents of minors would be welcome to press charges against any institution that offers “obscene” programming for minors (i.e., drag shows). They would be given up to two years to file complaints. The bill, thankfully, died in a Senate subcommittee.

Idaho

The state legislative session ran from January 10 through April 10. Idaho is a prime example of reintroducing bills that died in the previous year and making them more extreme.

  • H0384: School and public libraries that fail to protect minors from “explicit sexual material” — defined thoroughly by prurient politicians who have thereby made their own law illegal for minors to access — open themselves up to criminal prosecution from the minor or their parent/guardians. The bill did not pass.
  • H0710 (PASSED AND SIGNED INTO LAW): This bill defines obscenity and harmful materials. It then introduces a section called “Children’s School and Library Protection Act,” which bans school and public librarians from promoting, sharing, or keeping any materials that are deemed inappropriate for minors. If a parent or guardian believes their child received such materials, they may file a complaint with the institution, and the institution must consider whether to relocate or remove the material. The institution then needs to pay those parents $250 for “damages,” and county prosecutors and/or the state Attorney General can file further litigation if they so choose.

Indiana

In one of the quickest legislative sessions in the states, Indiana began their work January 8 and ended it March 8.

  • HB1221: School libraries and classroom libraries that “knowingly” distribute materials deemed harmful to minors would be subject to a level 6 felony. The bill did not pass but Indiana is on the fast track to decimate their public institutions, so it’s likely to come back again, like it did from last year to this year.

Kansas

Kansas wrapped up its legislative session this week, April 30, after beginning January 8.

  • SB188 and SB531: Both bills remove schools from protection against obscenity violations. The first stalled in the House Judiciary Committee, and the second stalled in the House Education Committee.

Louisiana

The state legislature begins session March 11 and adjourns June 3.

  • House Bill 777: This bill, noted above, would criminalize libraries and library workers for joining their professional association, the American Library Association. The bill died on May 1.
  • House Bill 414: This bill contains a single strikethrough of current state obscenity law, and that strikethrough is “public libraries.” They would no longer be exempt from such laws, thereby opening the opportunity for criminal prosecution (note: there is no material in any public or school library meeting the Miller Test’s standard of obscenity — this bill literally is meant to put a target on public libraries from the state and public eager to drain their budgets with lawsuits and complaints). The bill is currently in the Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice.
  • House Bill 545 is similar legislation to HB 414 but directed at public schools serving Kindergarten through 12th grade. That bill hits the floor for debate May 5.

Although not a bill designed to criminalize librarians, another one of concern worth noting in Louisiana is House Bill 168, now House Bill 974, which passed through the House. It strips the requirement that librarians hold any degree in librarianship…or any graduate degree at all in any field. This bill is an opportunity for libraries to no longer follow the policies and procedures of professional librarianship due to not needing any professional running the institution. It opens the door to a lack of advocacy from library leadership on behalf of libraries, meaning that more bills to directly prosecute the field would be possible and, well, defund these institutions, period.

Maryland

The state legislative session for Maryland ran January 10 to April 8. In positive news, the Maryland Freedom to Read Bill passed both chambers and is on the governor’s desk.

  • HB671: Public schools and libraries would not be able to display materials deemed obscene or inappropriate to minors. If found in violation, it’s a misdemeanor, subject to one year in jail or a $1,000 fine the first time and three years of prison or a $5,000 fine on subsequent convictions. This bill failed to progress.
  • SB355: This is essentially the same as the above House Bill, and it, too, failed to progress.

Minnesota

The legislative session in Minnesota began February 12 and will end May 20.

  • HF2683: This bill removes the obscenity exemptions for public schools and lays out the financial damages that parents who file lawsuits against districts for obscene materials can receive. As of March 8, the bill is still in the House Judiciary Committee.
  • SF2434: This is the Senate filing of the above bill removing obscenity exceptions for public schools. As of March 2, it was referred to Education policy with no further action. SF 2435 is the same bill with slight tweaks and also sitting in Education policy as of March 2.

Missouri

The Missouri legislative session runs January 3 through May 17. Despite deeply concerning legislation nationwide, Missouri’s slate of anti-library, pro-librarian prosecution bills is especially dark. These bills highlight that the goal is not anything to do with the so-called naughty books but about defunding these institutions, period.

  • HB1574: This would prohibit the state librarian from disbursing funds to public libraries throughout the state if they do not implement a series of requirements to ensure they do not have obscene material for children in the collection (they…don’t, we’ve established this). The bill also opens up the opportunity for institutions in violation of these requirements to be sued. It never progressed to the floor of the House.
  • HB2408: This is essentially the same bill as above, and it, too, has not been scheduled for hearing.
  • SB1272: The bill would make it against the law for any library or school to employ someone who has previously been found guilty of “providing explicit sexual material to a student” to get state funding. As of January 25, it’s been in the Select Committee on Empowering Missouri Parents and Children Committee.
  • SB1330: Public librarians can not only be charged with providing obscene materials to minors, so, too, would they be charged for anything related to drag materials or performances. Here’s the kicker — those who want to file a lawsuit can do so for up to 15 years following the “incident.” This has been sitting in the Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee since January 25.
  • SB1492: This would make providing so-called “sexually explicit” material to minors in libraries a felony rather than a misdemeanor. This was read for a second time in the Senate Select Committee on Empowering Missouri Parents and Children Committee on March 25. It might not be dead quite yet.

Nebraska

The Nebraska legislative session ran January 3 through April 18.

  • LB441: Postponed indefinitely, this bill would have removed obscenity exemptions from public libraries.

Tennessee

The legislative session in Tennessee began January 9 and ended April 25.

  • HB1090 (in the Senate as SB1061): This bill removes the obscenity exemption for schools. As March 22, it’s on in the General Subcommittee of Senate Judiciary Committee. It was removed from the calendar in the House subcommittee for Criminal Justice Subcommittee of Criminal Justice Committee March 21.

Utah

The legislative session for Utah ran January 16 through March 1 and took no time finding ways to criminalize librarians.

  • HB0029 (PASSED AND SIGNED INTO LAW): This bill defines sensitive and objectionable materials in schools across the state and opens up librarians to criminal prosecution for providing access to materials.
  • HB0417: The bill is similar to the above but opened up more gateways for parents and guardians to file lawsuits against institutions for “inappropriate materials,” as well as be involved in the material and curriculum selection process. It did not pass through the House.

Virginia

The Virginia legislative session ran January 10 through March 9. Despite a positive anti-book ban bill on the docket, passed both in the House and Senate, the governor declined to sign it into law. A special session will reconvene May 13, though it is not yet know whether that bill will be revisited.

  • HB1206: The bill would remove protections on “obscene materials” unless age restricted in schools. It was left in the House Courts of Justice in March.

West Virginia

West Virginia legislature convened January 10, 2024, and adjourned March 9, 2024. You’ll notice that West Virginia has the longest list of bills squarely targeting the criminalization of librarians.

  • HB4011: The bill removes criminal liability protections from public libraries related to so-called “obscener materials” accessible to minors and limits what protections schools have for biology classes. The bill died in the House Committee on the Judiciary.
  • HB4421: This is the anti-drag performance and anti-drag queen story time bill for schools and libraries. Those hosting either could be criminally liable for doing so. This died in the House Education Committee.
  • HB4654: Exemptions to criminal liability for “distribution of obscenity to minors” would be ended for schools and public libraries. This bill made it to the Senate Judiciary Committee but failed to progress.
  • HB5036: This “Parental Bill of Rights” would open up schools and libraries to prosecution from parents or guardians if they believed their students were exposed to anything they deemed inappropriate. It failed to move past the House Senior, Children, and Family Issues Committee.
  • HB5191: Like many other states, West Virginia attempted to criminalize adults who provide access to online resources or tools to access online resources that may be inappropriate for minors. Bills like this one are why states like Mississippi banned access to ebooks and apps like Sora/Hoopla/OverDrive for those under 18 without express parental permission. In West Virginia, this did not pass out of the House Judiciary Committee.
  • SB197: This bill would make it a criminal liability to have “obscene materials” within 2,500 feet of any West Virginia school. It did not pass from the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • SB322: Talk about obscene — this bill would make any educator or employee within a school responsible for sexual assault in the fourth degree and a felon for providing any material deemed “sexually explicit or oriented” as a requirement for academic advancement. This would include materials about gender, so yes, a biology class teacher might not be able to expect students to read or think about the difference between sex and gender as a condition of passing class. The bill died in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but this sets a hell of a bar for many other states to copy in the next year.
  • SB741: This bill ostensibly about AI-generated child porn was turned into an anti-library bill by the House Judiciary Committee, wherein the obscenity exemptions for libraries and schools would be killed. This bill did not pass.

Wisconsin

The Wisconsin legislative session began January 16 and ended March 14.

  • SB305: Another bill aimed at removing the obscenity exceptions from schools and public libraries and another failed attempt at it. It failed in the Senate in April after failing to progress.

Wyoming

Wyoming’s legislative session ran February 12 to March 8.

  • HB0068: Wyoming also aimed to remove protections from schools and libraries related to obscene materials. The bill failed to be considered in the House.

Book Censorship News: May 3, 2024

  • “Wading into the culture wars, city councilors are debating whether to pursue restrictions on sexually explicit materials for minors or give parents more tools to screen materials at the Seaside Public Library [OR].” As a reminder, it’s not the city council’s job to make these decisions. They’re being fascists.
  • An earlier bill to make book banning in Colorado more difficult failed, but a new, similar book-protecting bill is now being floated.
  • Parents in Duval School District (FL) have been trying to get the schools to end their relationship with Jacksonville Public Library because they don’t like that the public library offers access to Libby for ebooks. The district is, despite engaging in its own book banning, not interested in ending that relationship.
  • Research shows the language used to justify and demand book banning has gotten more violent. YEP.
  • People are not excited about the changes proposed by Governor Ivey in Alabama that would decimate their public libraries.
  • But because Governor Ivey signed HB89 in the state, it’s up to five GOP legislators to decide who all sits on the Shelby County Public Library board. That is inevitably going to lead to that library becoming right-wing territory.
  • “Emails obtained by The York Dispatch document secret meetings and behind-the-scenes coordination between school board members who’ve pushed book bans and anti-LGBTQ+ policies and the political action committee that helped elect them.” Of course.
  • Four Niagara-on-the-Lake (Ontario, Canada) residents started a petition begging the library to practice “neutrality” following the firing of the former CEO. That CEO got fired because she espoused all of the typical right-wing rhetoric about books, so this sort of response is unsurprising. Again, four people and under 1,000 signatures.

I don’t want to link to this story nor promote the site/cause and give them traffic directly, but I’d been wondering why there were so many “pray the rosary” rallies at libraries in the last couple of weeks. Turns out — shocker — it was a coordinated effort. There were 1,000 over the course of two days.

Screen shot of the "rosary rally report" from america needs fatima, which targeted libraries over the made up panic related to books in the collections.