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Utah’s Draconian Book Banning Bill Close to Passage; An Anti-Book Ban Bill Proposed In Response

Kelly Jensen


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.

Utah has made headlines around book banning since this wave of increased censorship began in 2021. This is thanks to a very active “parental rights” group in the state that has successfully activated its base and brought compelling–albeit patently false–narratives to the table around “pornographic” books in school libraries. Schools in Utah were among the first to have to content with actual challenges to religious texts, including the Bible. The book was banned in Davis School District before being reinstated.

This year’s legislative session put “parental rights” at the top of its agenda. House Bill 29, known as the “Sensitive Materials Amendments” Bill, has been making its way through the chambers quickly. The bill would criminalize librarians under the belief that they are distributing “pornography.” Among the “pornography” pointed to as proof are books like Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize winning The Bluest Eye, as well as books written by Judy Blume, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and more. All have been banned in districts across the state per the “Bright Line Rule,” which classifies them as pornography. This “Bright Line Rule” allows school boards to skip a formal review process and remove materials without further action.

Additional titles that have been targeted and banned under the “Bright Line Rule” include The Handmaid’s Tale, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, All Boys Aren’t Blue, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted.

HB 29 takes this one step further. If the bill passes–and right now it looks extremely close to just that–then books banned in one school district could be banned in every district in the state within 10 days were the following met: the book has been removed in three school districts or two school districts and five charter schools. It would be up to the state board of education–not the district’s–to decide whether or not the book should be reviewed.

Per Michael Curtis, Legislative Counsel, librarians and educators would be held criminally liable for having those books available.

“These definitions all come from the criminal code, so when we’re talking about pornographic or indecent materials in these various sections…they are all criminal code definitions. These sections are about displaying or distributing pornography to a minor. So the individual who hands pornography to a minor, provides access to a minor could be subject to criminal penalties,” Curtis told legislator Carol Moss in a November Interim Education Committee Meeting. He also told legislator Angela Romero in the same meeting that, “really regardless of whether the board takes a vote and determines that something is not, doesn’t violate these pornography standards that doesn’t foreclose the possibility that a prosecutor could bring charges against someone.”

These decisions would apply retroactively, too. Books already classified as inappropriate by the identified quantity of districts would need to be purged across the state upon the passage of the bill.

Utah residents are urged to write their representatives, as well as Governor Cox, to veto HB 29. Let Utah Read makes this simple.

It would be easy to write this off as “one of those states.” We’ve seen time and time again that people residing in “good” or “blue” states have ignored or overlooked the rampant censorship happening in their own communities–more often than not done via soft/quiet means–and they’ve also quickly reduced the complexity of other states into “of course it’s [fill in the blank state].” Often this blatantly ignores a history of voter disenfranchisement. More, it showcases an eagerness to not tolerate thy neighbor, and places a privilege on who should or should not have their rights protected (Utah or Texas or Florida kids deserve it as much as California or Massachusetts or Illinois students!). We know from the data that extreme bills like these are not the opinion of the majority.

In Utah, there is another bill on the table when it comes to library access, and it’s a bill that would help keep libraries as spaces of democratic equity. That bill, House Bill 583, was introduced February 23 by Democrat Brian King. King is currently running for Utah governor.

HB 583 would extend protections to library workers for their collections while also codifying library collections reflect the diversity of the community. Control over material selection and removal would not be in the hands of the state but instead, local educational leadership.

From the bill:

To ensure that educators and libraries within LEAs carry out the essential purpose of making available to all students within the public education system a current, balanced collection of instructional materials that reflect the cultural diversity and pluralistic nature of American society, the state shall: (a) protect the financial resources of libraries and LEAs from being expended in litigation; and (b) ensure the use of the financial resources of libraries and LEAs to the greatest extent possible for fulfilling the essential purpose of libraries and LEAs. (6) No individual who is an employee of an LEA or a member of an LEA governing board is liable to civil action or criminal prosecution for providing the function described in Subsection (5) for acts or omissions regarding a material that is claimed to constitute sensitive material while in the individual’s capacity as an employee or a board member.

King notes that the state legislature has taken their power too far. Indeed, the movement toward “parental rights” with such legislation is actually a step backwards for giving rights to parents.

“[Legislators] think they know better than parents … better than educators, better than the children themselves what the children should be reading. That’s a problem in my humble opinion,” King said to upon introduction of his bill. “We have way too many people in the Utah State Legislature who want to be judgmental. They don’t want to be curious.”

A key portion of HB 583 is that challenges to books need to be done on the basis of the entire book and not just passages. This aligns with the Miller Test, the guiding principal for determining obscenity in the United States. HB 29, which is near passage in the state legislature, overrides that precedent.

“The work as a whole is important to evaluate as a whole and determine whether it has value as opposed to just picking and choosing the stuff that you think is objectionable,” King said to KSL.

Much like it is imperative for Utahans to write their legislators and governor about being against HB 29, it is also crucial to write in support of King’s legislation. Utah residents seeking an opportunity to get involved on the ground to combat book bans and state-sanctioned censorship can do so with Let Utah Read. The group has been active and engaged with the freedom to read statewide.