The new legislative year is off to a worrisome start for librarians and educators. EveryLibrary’s John Chrastka tells PW that eight states so far have introduced new bills that would remove “defense from prosecution” exemptions for librarians and educators. In other words, these bills would explicitly place librarians, educators, and other professionals under the threat of prosecution under state obscenity and harmful to minor laws. “If they pass, it is another step on the path to criminalizing our institutions and the workforce,” Chrastka told PW.
In response, EveryLibrary has been working with advocates and state library associations to create resources worth sharing, including a 2023 tracker states proposing or enacting such laws. Chrastka says EveryLibrary will be updating the list “in as close to real-time” as possible as things develop. Bookmark the page and stay engaged.
In addition, the EveryLibrary Institute has released a new policy brief designed to help advocates understand and oppose bills that seek to criminalize library and education work. It's also worth pointing out again EveryLibrary Institute's model legislation for school and library database procurement. Released last year, the model focuses on “proactively inoculating state library contracts from anti-access initiatives.” In 2021 and 2022, a number of state legislatures considered legislation that would “curtail or limit access to school library databases right wing groups say contain pornographic or obscene materials,” Chrastka notes.
From Montana, an example of a bill that would expose librarians to prosecution: The Helena Independent Record reports on a hearing on House Bill 234, which would remove exemption from prosecution protections for public schools, libraries, museums, and those institutions’ employees, subjecting them to criminal liability for displaying or disseminating materials deemed to be obscene for minors. “But wide-ranging opposition challenged the substance of the bill, its origins, and consequences for material that may offend but do not meet a somewhat ambiguous definition of 'obscenity' in state law,” the report states. “This bill is a national issue that by design is meant to stir up anger and fear and make us forget about the decency of our own neighbors who do these jobs, our librarians, teachers, and museum directors that this bill puts at risk,” Sam Forstag of the Montana Libraries Association told reporters.
Meanwhile, in Florida, Education Week has a couple of pieces on the proposed new training that librarians and educators in Florida may have to undergo after the state passed a number of laws last year “aimed at restricting what students read and learn about, particularly topics considered controversial, such as race and racism or LGBTQ issues.”
The new training document is intended to guide librarians “on choosing, removing, and curating books” in compliance with the new laws. Among its provisions: librarians and educators would reportedly be prohibited from using instructional materials that include “critical race theory, culturally responsive teaching, social-emotional learning, social justice,” or “any other unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination,” writes staff writer Eesha Pendharkar. If a book is later found to be “harmful,” the librarian can be charged with a third-degree felony.
“Librarians and education experts told Education Week that the training is going to contribute to self-censorship on the part of librarians, because they’re fearful of violating the rules,” the report states. “That, in turn, could lead to students losing access to diverse perspectives, especially historically marginalized students who find themselves represented by many of the banned books and instructional materials.”
PEN America is sounding the alarm this week over a slew of new state bills targeting drag performances. “In the first weeks of the current legislative session, legislators in eight states have introduced legislation aiming to restrict or censor drag shows,” PEN reports. “A total of 14 bills have been introduced across Arizona, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. Other bills appear to be being drafted, including in Montana and Idaho.” PEN notes that this wave of “anti-drag” legislation “dovetails with a rise in political rhetoric about drag performances and drag queen story hours in public libraries in numerous states, and a growing number of recent protests at drag events, some of which have turned violent.”
From the Houston Chronicle, news broke this week that the Katy Independent School District in Katy, Tex., has canceled a visit from bestselling author Emma Straub, reportedly because the author has used the “F word” on her social media platforms. Straub was set to talk with students about her first children's picture book, Very Good Hats, and “the writing process.” The visit was scrapped, however, after a Katy ISD parent complained about a social media post from Straub on the day of the Uvalde school shooting that read: “Fuck guns, fuck people who care more about controlling women's bodies than protecting all of us from people with guns, fuck! It's too much. So heartbroken.” The Chronicle points out that Katy ISD also canceled an event last October with award-winning author Jerry Craft (and temporarily pulled his books from library shelves) following complaints that his books contained “critical race theory.” The books were later restored and the event rescheduled.
In Idaho, the local Coeur d'Alene/Post Falls Press has an excellent report on a library board meeting at the Hayden Library, the kind of meeting that is surely playing out across the country. “Many spoke about their concerns regarding obscenities, pornography and other materials they find inappropriate that children may have access to, while others spoke in support of the public library system, freedom of choice and the need for parents, not librarians, to monitor what children are checking out,” the report states. This particularly cogent comment from a local library user stands out: “Humans are diverse, that is one of the strengths and beauties of human beings,” the commenter said. “To ban books is a violation of our basic freedoms. As an Idahoan, I have always so appreciated that we have this unspoken agreement: ‘You do you, and let me do me.’ That is being an Idahoan, and that is powerful freedom and liberty. To ban books is oppression; to empower one group's ideology at the disservice of everyone else is oppression.”
Kelly Jensen at Book Riot has her weekly roundup of censorship news, which this week includes a look at some of the legislative efforts underway in 2023. “Right-wing politicians got the new legislative year off to an impressive start with several new bills across the country directly targeting books, reading, and intellectual freedom,” Jensen writes. “Of course, we know that these bills aren’t about the books at all, but instead are another avenue to chip away at the rights of marginalized populations: people of color, queer people, and young people.”
In addition, Book Riot also has this worthwhile look at the “bright” future of libraries from Nikki DeMarco. “Yes, there are book bans and challenges. Yes, there are funding issues. But there are also citizens who show up to town hall meetings to speak out against censorship, and libraries that continue to look towards the future in terms of technology and making their spaces as accessible as possible.”
Some exciting news comes from the Multnomah County Library in Oregon, which has released four never-before-seen renderings of its forthcoming new East County Library. The approximately 95,000-sq.-ft. new building, designed by Adjaye Associates and Holst Architecture, will provide “an exciting level of services and programming in a vibrant, diverse location.” It looks beautiful.
And finally, lawmakers in Rhode Island this week introduced H158, the first state library e-book law of the 2023 legislative sessions. The law is virtually the same bill that was introduced in the last legislative session, and it closely mirrors the groundbreaking library e-book law that was struck down by a federal court in Maryland in February 2022 on copyright grounds. Rhode Island's bill has a notable difference from the Maryland law, however: a provision that would render unenforceable “license term that limit the rights of a library or school under the U.S. Copyright Act.” Furthermore, that legislation states that the provision would be severable, meaning that the provision could stand even if other parts of the law, if passed, are ruled invalid. Library advocates say e-book bills in at least a dozen other states are also under discussion.