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How many ‘indecent’ books will be banned statewide after new Utah law takes effect in July?

State officials still working on implementing HB29 so the number is not yet known. Meanwhile, some districts pull previously retained books like ‘The Kite Runner’ — and they’re not likely to return.

By Katie McKellar - Utah News Dispatch | Apr 23, 2024

Hakim Wright Sr., Associated Press

Books sit on shelves in an elementary school library in suburban Atlanta on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023.

Currently there are more questions than answers about how many books will actually be banned statewide once a new bill passed by the 2024 Utah Legislature becomes law.

The Utah State Board of Education is now working through how to implement HB29, which takes effect July 1 and expands upon an earlier passed in 2022 that allows parents to challenge “sensitive materials” in schools. The bills’ sponsor, Rep. Ken Ivory, has been working with a group of parent activists that has been trying for several years to ban “pornographic” or “indecent” books in schools.

HB29 carves a pathway for books to be banned statewide if at least three school districts or at least two school districts and five charter schools determine a book is “objective sensitive material,” or has material that is “pornographic or indecent” defined under state law.

It’s not yet known how many of those books will meet that definition.

“If any material should meet the threshold requirements according to HB29, that information will be shared by USBE after July 1,” a USBE spokesperson told Utah News Dispatch.

Districts and charters are expected to be notified of any books that then need to be removed statewide after the State School Board meets in August.

“At this time, no material has been removed statewide,” the spokesperson said.

However, recently some books have been pulled from some school district shelves — not because of HB29, which has yet to be implemented, but because school districts are enforcing existing policies that were put in place after a law passed in 2022, HB374, laid the initial groundwork for parents to challenge books and other “sensitive materials.”

Recently pulled titles

Earlier this month, Granite School District teachers were notified in an email that on March 25, a high school parent submitted a complaint about a book titled “An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie. The book “was found to be in violation” of the state’s current definition of “indecent public displays,” under descriptions or depictions of “illicit sex or sexual immorality.”

“Therefore, in accordance with our current novels policy (linked here) and our current sensitive materials process (linked here),” which were developed as a result of HB374, the district email states, “we pulled the material pending a review by the novels appeals committee. It should be noted that we consider it prudent to pull materials pending a full review because USBE (policy) makes it a reportable offense to (the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission) if an educator ‘exposes students to sensitive materials.'”

An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” is about a boy living on the Spokane Indian Reservation that leaves his school to attend an all-white farm town high school. In 2007 it won the National Book Awards for Young People’s Literature that’s been described as “funny, gritty and powerful.” However, some critics have described it as “crude” and “crass,” pointing to passages about sex and masturbation. Its supporters argue the book discusses sexual topics, but isn’t overly graphic or explicit.

The district email also stated three other books were pulled from Granite School District previously approved novels list “pending an objective materials review by the novels appeals committee based on likely violations” of the same section of state code “for sexual descriptions or depictions.”

Those books pulled from Granite School District shelves included:

  • “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini
  • “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
  • “The Freedom Writers Diary” by Erin Gruwell and student Freedom Writers

Why are these books being pulled again, even though earlier decisions deemed they should be retained in schools?

It’s not because of HB29 — at least not yet, according to the district.

Though the Granite School District email said the books were being pulled pending a review for “objective materials” — a term defined by HB29, which is not yet in effect — a Granite School District spokesperson told Utah News Dispatch the decision was made under existing district policies for approved novels and “sensitive materials,” which specifies available books can’t contain sexually explicit descriptions.

“Under our current policy and procedure for novels, they cannot contain pornographic material as described in section 1227 of state code,” Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley said, referring to the state’s definition of “indecent public displays.”

“So they’re being reviewed to see if there is in fact any legitimacy to concerns about those materials,” Horsley said.

These books have been challenged before and were put back on library shelves after a parent committee determined they didn’t violate a community standard and had literary value. But after HB374 was implemented and the state school board adopted a rule in January that specifies a teacher may not “expose students to sensitive materials,” Horsley said the most recent challenge to “An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” prompted district officials to take another look at the other three books.

Even though the titles are currently undergoing a review process and have not technically yet been officially banned across Granite School District, Horsley acknowledged that it’s likely they won’t return to shelves this time once HB29 takes effect. That’s because they face a high chance of being deemed “objective sensitive material” under section 1227 of state code, or the state’s definitions of “indecent public displays.”

“Given that our sensitive materials review committee actually already looked at these materials, the likelihood of them being removed permanently under HB29 is significant,” Horsley said.

However, in the meantime he said Granite School District will review books under its current process. The district posts a complete list of book challenges and their statuses on its website.

‘They’re using a sledgehammer where a scalpel is called for’

One Granite School District teacher Deborah Gatrell (speaking on her own behalf and not for the district) was dismayed by the pulled titles — and she worries even more books she believes have artistic and literary value will be pulled after HB29 takes effect.

“Those books — they’re classic books. They’re not pornography,” Gatrell said, arguing that taken as a whole, the books explore topics that are relevant to maturing students who could benefit from opportunities to “catch a glimpse” of other world views and experiences.

She pointed specifically to “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” — an autobiography that explores the author’s experiences with racial prejudice. The site Common Sense Media described it as “strong, honest, and beautifully written,” but notes it details some “very upsetting personal incidents, including the rape of a very young girl.”

Yes, the book “deals with very difficult topics that are real issues, real problems,” Gatrell said, but she added “sexual violence, sexual assault is a major problem in Utah. … So taking books that talk about it out of a library is not going to help address the problem. We don’t talk about these things, and so they happen, and people don’t have the words for it because they don’t understand what it is or how to deal with it.”

Ivory and his supporters have argued throughout the debate over HB29 and HB374 that they’re only meant to keep sexually explicit content out of schools. They say they aren’t intended to “ban books,” just make what they’ve defined as inappropriate not so easily accessible to students.

Gatrell said she’s “always acknowledged that there’s room for nuanced conversation about what’s age-appropriate and what’s not school appropriate.” But “unfortunately,” she said, groups of parent activists in Utah and other states have been applying their own definitions of what’s inappropriate and asking the government to “remove anything they find objectionable.”

Gatrell worries when HB29 takes effect there will be even more titles swept up and banned statewide. She said in a recent faculty meeting there are “easily over 100” books that multiple districts have banned and could be banned statewide, she said.

“They’re using a sledgehammer where a scalpel is called for,” she said.

Horsley, who also sits on the Granite School District’s sensitive review committee, said the law is clear when it comes to sexually explicit material.

“I’m telling you, some of this content is in fact pornographic and is in violation of the law,” he said.

Same books restricted in Davis School District

Meanwhile, another school district to the north — Davis School District — has also recently pulled the some of the same previously retained books, including “An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” “The Kite Runner,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” according to its book challenge tracker posted on its website.

Anti-book ban advocacy group Let Davis Read said it tracked at least 17 books that were recently removed or limited to only kids in high school “without explanation.”

Books including “An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” “The Kite Runner,” and “Bodies Are Cool” by Tyler Feder “appear to have been initially retained but removed quietly after someone appealed DSD’s initial decision,” the group wrote in an April 3 news release, accusing Davis School District of lacking transparency and violating its own policy by not posting enough details about recent decisions and their rationale.

For example, Davis School District’s website shows a review committee initially determined “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” did not contain sensitive material as defined by Utah law, but on March 29 the book was removed in response to an appeal. As of Friday, no rationale was given for that decision on the district’s website.

In response to a request for comment from Davis School District, spokesperson Christopher Williams issued a prepared statement saying, “Our intent is to be fully compliant with law and policy and provide as much transparency as possible.”

“All decisions for the retention and removal of books are accurately posted on the district website,” Williams said, though he noted the school district is still working on updating the site with more information. “Some of those decisions were posted prior to policy changes and/or appeal process decisions, and we are actively working to update the supporting rationale statements posted online so they will be reflective of the posted decisions.”

In the meantime, it’s unclear how many of those books could fall under HB29’s “objective sensitive material” definition and could therefore be banned statewide if enough school districts make matching determinations.

Ahead of HB29’s effective date July 1, “we are anxiously awaiting” the state school board’s updated rules, Williams said, “and will be adjusting our policy as needed to be compliant with the provisions outlined in the bill when the law goes into effect.”

Are there unintended consequences of ‘sensitive materials’ laws?

Let Davis Read co-founder Jessica Horton, said she also worries about the latest batch of pulled titles and the possibility of statewide book bans under HB29. She noted most books that some are worried about are already not in elementary schools, but have been allowed in junior high and high school libraries.

“Some of these books may make some parents feel uncomfortable, but feeling uncomfortable doesn’t automatically mean something meets the legal definition of pornography or obscenity,” she said. “And one person’s discomfort should not dictate policy for an entire school district or state.”

She said it’s problematic to “cherry pick passages” that are perhaps the “worst moment” of a book then judge the entire book by those passages.

“We don’t give kids enough credit,” she said, arguing “kids are smart. They know and can think critically, and they can see, ‘Oh, this book is more than just the worst moment of this book.'”

Horton pointed to “An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” arguing it discusses masturbation without going into too much detail. Though some people see masturbation as a topic that shouldn’t be discussed at all, it’s also something many teenage boys experience, she said.

She also pointed to “The Kite Runner,” which tells the story of a boy whose life is upturned when violence overtakes Afghanistan. Common Sense Media describes it as a “beautiful, moving novel (that) deals with complex adult issues.” It also includes graphic descriptions of cruelty and violence, including homosexual rape, murder, beatings and a suicide attempt.

Horton said many of the books that Davis County School District has banned or limited deal with sexual assault and rape, and she argued discussing or depicting those topics shouldn’t be automatically considered “porn.”

Though the books discuss controversial and difficult topics, Horton said there’s value in allowing students access to literary works that can help them understand hard realities. For example, Horton said she was sexually assaulted when she was 19, “and I didn’t realize what happened to me until several years later,” after she learned the definition of sexual assault and she read “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson, about a girl who was raped at a party and her healing process.

“I was like, ‘Oh. That’s what happened to me. That’s why I’ve been struggling so much.’ … And that opened the gateway to me having the language to describe what happened to me and realize what happened to me was wrong. The feelings I have about this are valid, and I’m experiencing trauma.”

Horton said she worries about harming students by “taking away the power that words have because we’re afraid. I think we don’t realize that when we take away words, we’re taking away people’s ability to express themselves and to find meaning, healing and hope.”

“Sensitive materials” laws proponents and lawmakers including Ivory have argued they’re not overly restricting access — noting if students really want to read those books they can buy them at Barnes and Noble or on Amazon. But Horton said “not everybody can buy books, and that’s privileging certain students who have the means to buy books.”

“It just breaks my heart. Because I know kids who have struggled … and books have saved their lives. Books have saved my life. And we’re taking away those tools, that language, we’re taking away the ability for kids to find the things they need to heal. And we’re doing a disservice to everybody in the community when we do that.”

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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