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Utah Legislature OKs bill making it easier to ban ‘indecent’ books in schools statewide

By Katie McKellar - Utah News Dispatch | Feb 21, 2024

Illustration by Alex Cochran for Utah News Dispatch

The Utah Legislature has approved a bill making it easier to prohibit “criminally indecent or pornographic” books in schools statewide.

The Utah Legislature has approved a bill expanding on a 2022 law that allows parents to challenge “sensitive materials” in schools, making it easier to prohibit “criminally indecent or pornographic” books statewide if they’re banned in a handful of school districts or charter schools.

The Utah House on Wednesday voted 52-18, mostly along party lines, to give final legislative approval to HB29. It now goes to Gov. Spencer Cox.

The final vote came after its sponsor, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, struck a deal with the Senate on Tuesday, altering the bill to temper it from an earlier version that would have automatically banned a book statewide if at least three school districts or at least two school districts and five charter schools determined it contained “objective sensitive material,” or “criminally indecent or pornographic” content.

The bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, changed the bill in the Senate to allow school boards to individually hold public hearings to decide whether to keep a book in their schools before a statewide ban would take effect. It was a change that Ivory said “just defeats the purpose” of the bill, which is to create “uniformity” across schools, when he asked the House to reject the Senate’s version.

Tuesday, Ivory and Weiler met during a conference committee to hash out a deal: Instead of allowing individual school boards to vote on whether to keep or ban a book after an automatic statewide ban is initiated, the Utah State Board of Education would be able to vote on whether to override that ban.

“We were trying to preserve local authority” in the Senate version of the bill, Weiler said, but he reached a compromise with Ivory to give that final decision on a statewide ban to the state school board.

Ivory — who along with a group of parent activists has been trying for several years now to ban “pornographic” books and materials in schools — agreed.

“We’ve got it in good shape,” Ivory told the House. “We’ve got both clarity and uniformity that was the whole purpose of the bill.”

The debate

Democrats opposed HB29, arguing that it gives too much power to a handful of school boards to ban books statewide while standards may vary from community to community.

“This is the antithesis of local control,” Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, who has worked as a teacher, said on the House floor on Jan. 30 while arguing against the bill. “With this bill, just a couple of individuals can take away the rights of parents statewide to make choices that best fit their children’s needs.”

That was before the Senate changes, but Moss again voted against the bill Wednesday. She also argued the bill goes too far to allow government censorship of books based on subjective interpretations.

She said schools already have a process to weigh books “as a whole” when considering whether they have scientific, literary or artistic value — a standard Ivory pointed to when an unnamed person challenged the Bible in Davis School District in protest of Ivory’s 2022 “sensitive materials” bill that paved the way for book challenges.

“This long standing legal standard should be applied to all books being considered for removal, not whether they fit an ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’ standard,” Moss said of the definitions included in Ivory’s latest bill. “They’re both subjective.”

Utah made national headlines last year when Davis School District, adhering to the 2022 law, pulled the Bible amid the challenge, but weeks later returned it to middle school and elementary school shelves in response to 70 appeals. Ivory said at the time the challenge was a “mockery” and Utah would need to revise its law.

If this year’s bill passes, Moss said, “I hope it will end the criminalizing of librarians,” accusing the activist parents Ivory has worked with of telling “parents to call the police if a librarian doesn’t immediately remove a challenged book.”

“Picture that,” Moss said. “Police going into a school library and arresting a sweet little elementary school librarian.”

Moss urged lawmakers to “respect the professionalism of our school librarians and our teachers and return to a book removal process that lets a local school district, parents and elected school board members to make decisions on library books and instructional materials that best fit their students.”

“Parents can and should be the ones who monitor their children’s reading — not the government,” Moss said.

Ivory argued that’s what he’s trying to accomplish — to empower parents to prevent their kids from being exposed to “indecent or pornographic” books.

“This bill does that,” he said. “It respects the rights of parents to keep and protect their children from pornographic images at public school that they’re compelled to go to.”

Ivory also argued his bill doesn’t “ban books,” because it still allows those books to be sold and purchased in the private sector.

“It respects the rights of parents that want to go to Amazon or go to the bookstore, Barnes & Noble, and buy any of these books for their children if they wish,” he said. “This is not a book ban, as some hyperbolize. This (sets) age appropriate limits on content for children.”

Ivory said some of the books contain such graphic content that he’s been told by legislative attorneys he can’t read or distribute them on the House floor.

“It’s material that — I didn’t lead a sheltered life growing up — but I didn’t realize there were sexual things like these things that are described in these books,” Ivory said. “There are descriptions and graphic depictions of sexual acts and sexual things that I didn’t even know were things.”

In a House committee last month, Ivory was cut off by a point of order while trying to read a sexually descriptive passage from a book written by fantasy fiction author Sarah J. Maas.

“It’s time that we stand for the good and the clean and the pure and the powerful and the positive for our children, because that’s why we have public school,” Ivory said.

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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