Activists challenge books and librarians fear harsher punishments

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“There’s a depiction of a rape scene, a handmaid being forced into a sexual act,” says Tom Bober, Clayton district’s library coordinator and president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians.
Public and school-based libraries have been inundated with complaints from community members and conservative organizations such as as Moms for Liberty.
Increasingly, lawmakers are considering new punishments — crippling lawsuits, hefty fines, and even imprisonment — for distributing books some regard as inappropriate.
Already this year, lawmakers in more than 15 states have introduced bills to impose harsh penalties on libraries or librarians.
Brad Little’s signature is a bill that empowers local prosecutors to bring charges against public and school libraries if they don’t move “harmful” materials away from children.
“Until recently, police and prosecutors were unable to pursue charges against public libraries over materials that make certain individuals uncomfortable.
Tennessee criminalized publishers that provide “obscene” materials to public schools.
The law also requires public catalogs of what’s in each school library and systems for responding to complaints.

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Teachers in Clayton, Missouri didn’t have to think long to decide to retain copies of Margaret Atwood’s 2019 illustrated version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in their high school libraries. This dystopian novel about women’s oppression is widely considered a classic; a graphic novel would make it more accessible to teenagers who have difficulty reading text alone.

Subsequently, however, the suburban St. Louis library faced legal action from Missouri lawmakers in 2022, which imposed fines and even jail time on librarians who kept sexually explicit books on their shelves. After giving the new Atwood edition some thought, Louis district decided to withdraw it.

The president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the library coordinator for the Clayton district, Tom Bober, claims that there is a depiction of a rape scene in which a handmaid is coerced into performing a sexual act. “Even though it’s only one panel in the graphic novel, we thought it broke Missouri law.”. “.

Book bans and challenges nationwide have increased to their highest points in many years. Complaints from community members and conservative groups like Moms for Liberty have flooded public and school-based libraries. Legislators are increasingly thinking about harsher penalties for disseminating books that some people think are improper, including jail time, hefty fines, and even lifelong lawsuits.

The movement started as authorities tried to define words like “harmful” and “obscene.”. Numerous conflicts center on books with racial and/or LGBTQ+ themes, like Maia Kobabe’s memoir “Gender Queer” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”. The threat alone has increased self-censorship, even though no librarians or teachers have been imprisoned.

More than fifteen states have already seen the introduction of bills by legislators this year that would severely penalize libraries and librarians.

In order to enforce a new system of challenging and removing “sensitive” books from school settings, Utah passed legislation in March that gives the state’s attorney general this authority. A panel to oversee adherence to the law and any infractions is also established by it.

Awaiting the governor of Idaho. A bill that allows local prosecutors to file charges against public and school libraries for failing to remove “harmful” materials from children’s reach was signed by Brad Little.

Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom Deborah Caldwell-Stone claims that the laws are intended to curtail or eliminate the legal protections that libraries have enjoyed for many years.

Education professionals, librarians, and other staff members who provide materials to children have been mostly shielded from costly legal actions and possible criminal prosecutions since the early 1960s. These institutions include schools, libraries, and museums.

States started implementing these safeguards as America struggled to define obscenity, a term that was established by the Supreme Court in 1973.

deciding Miller v. 5–4. The Supreme Court of California ruled that pornographic materials are not always protected by the First Amendment. The court listed three requirements that must be satisfied for a work to be classified as pornographic: it must appeal to a “prurient interest” when viewed as a whole; it must “depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law”; and it must lack “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”. “.

Educators, librarians, museum officials, and others who provide information to minors eventually enacted protections in practically every state.

Until recently, public libraries could not be charged for having materials that make some people uncomfortable. This was the jurisdiction of police and prosecutors. The 2023 report from EveryLibrary, a national political action committee that opposes censorship, said that “these exemptions have prevented spurious prosecutions of teachers over health and sexuality curriculum, art, theater, and difficult subjects in English classes.”.

Last year, legislation that criminalized teachers and librarians was implemented in Arkansas and Indiana. Publishers who give “obscene” materials to public schools are subject to criminal penalties in Tennessee.

Republican lawmakers are pushing for national penalties and regulations. The president of the right-wing group, Kevin Roberts, wrote in the foreword of Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation’s blueprint for a potential second Donald Trump administration, that “people who produce and distribute it should be imprisoned” in reference to “pornography.”. Those who promote it in schools and public libraries ought to be considered registered sex offenders. “.

A consortium of book publishers and librarians contested the validity of charging booksellers and librarians with crimes if they give children access to “harmful” materials, leading a federal judge to temporarily halt the Arkansas version.

The defense of “educational purposes” was eliminated by Indiana lawmakers for school librarians and teachers accused of supplying children with “obscene” or “harmful” materials. These offenses carry a maximum sentence of two and a half years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Additionally, public catalogs of the materials in each school library and complaint handling procedures are mandated by law.

The law of Indiana went into force on January 1. It’s more likely a question of when than if a lawsuit is brought, and the fear has chilling effects.

There are those who are fearful of it. Diane Rogers, the president of the Indiana Library Federation and a school librarian, described it as “extremely frightening.”. Even if you are found not guilty, a licensed teacher who is simply charged with a felony may lose their license. That is a very serious matter. “.

Despite reports that some school districts have moved some titles to older age groups or required parental permission to check them out, Rogers stated she is confident that Indiana’s school libraries do not offer pornographic materials.

According to PEN America, 300 books were taken out of school libraries in 11 Missouri districts after lawmakers in 2022 outlawed “sexually explicit” literature, which carries a $2,000 fine or a year in jail. The Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and library associations contested the law last year; however, it is still in force while the state files a motion to become involved.

Another book that is no longer available to high school students in Clayton is “Gender Queer.” District officials there have recently focused on Mike Curato’s graphic novel “Flamer,” which follows a teen who battles with his sexual identity and how to fit in at Boy Scout camp. “Flamer” was listed by the American Library Association as one of the books that will be most challenged, banned, or both in 2023.

According to Bober, “we had a lot of conversations about how to interpret the law and not be in violation.”. However, we also wished to avoid going too far and over-censoring our holdings. We didn’t believe we were breaking the law when we used “Flamer.”. “.

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