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Committee OKs bill that would require removal of school library books statewide if 3 Utah districts deem them indecent

Critics say the legislation flies in the face of local control of schools

SHARE Committee OKs bill that would require removal of school library books statewide if 3 Utah districts deem them indecent
The library at Tooele High School in Tooele is pictured on March 20, 2023.

The library at Tooele High School in Tooele is pictured on Monday, March 20, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Books or other materials in Utah public school libraries deemed pornographic or indecent by three local school districts — or two school districts and five charter schools — could be removed from schools statewide, under legislation approved by a state legislative committee.

The House Education Committee gave a favorable recommendation to HB29, by a vote of 10-2 Tuesday afternoon. The bill moves to the House of Representatives for further consideration.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said the legislation was a clarifying measure and would help ensure that “objective sensitive material” is quickly removed from Utah public schools.

He urged committee members to “send a message” that materials that meet the definitions in state code as pornographic or indecent do not belong in Utah schools.

“What this bill now does, is it provides for clarity on implementation, and then uniformity across the state and how we apply the standard that was already in law as to what is criminally indecent,” he said.

Most people who spoke against the bill objected to a handful of school districts and charter schools usurping the local control of elected school boards.

“This section (of the legislation) allows as few as 2% of your local education agencies up to 4% of LEAs to make decisions for up to the 98% of LEAs, so literally a couple of individuals in just a couple of communities,” said Sara Jones, government relations director for the Utah Education Association.

Kim Chandler, a member of the Granite School District Board of Education speaking on her own behalf, said pornography in schools was one of the driving reasons she decided to run for school board.

“I have personally read and seen the graphic nature of the pornographic content of so many of the books being offered to our kids in the school setting across the state. This is truly a huge problem and I am grateful for the efforts of the bill’s sponsor and others on this bill and for the other efforts being made to protect kids,” Chandler said.

Ellie Menlove, legislative and policy counsel for ACLU of Utah, spoke against HB29.

“At its core, the bill boils down to an attempt to ban books in our schools, which violates our students’ First Amendment right to receive information and ideas in school. The bill also would suppress students’ right to read and learn free from viewpoint-based censorship. For these reasons, the ACLU of Utah encourages you all to vote against advancing the bill,” Menlove said.

Ryan Woods, who introduced himself as the drag persona Lady MAGA USA and the uncle of more than 50 nieces and nephews, said, “I am here for them as a respectable gay man. I condemn modern LGBTQIA+ radical bullying and obsession with pushing gender and trans confusion in children. Other people’s children don’t need to learn of their sexuality or fetishes.”

“Under the guise of LGBTQ+ inclusion, pornographic images and descriptions are pushed on our youth by teachers who aren’t teachers. They’re activists. They’re dangerous groomers. Teachers are called to teach our youth to be free thinkers and proficient in subjects such as math and science, not sexuality. Children are not allowed into adult bookstores for a reason, to protect their innocence,” Woods said.

Retired Davis School District librarian Brian Ferguson pushed back, calling such claims “outrageous.”

“Our professional educators are the best among us. They have dedicated their lives to helping our children become happy, healthy, productive citizens,” he said.

HB29 would create a mechanism by which a book could potentially be banned statewide because it upset a small minority, he said.

“This is a threat to the very constitutional foundations of our country — censorship by the minority undermines the First Amendment and it undermines people’s right to read what they choose. Of course we need to protect and guide our children. Our teachers and our librarians have always been doing that. It’s our job. We joined the education profession because we like kids and we want to help kids, not hurt them,” he said.

Utah Parents United’s Brooke Stephens said she has developed a website that links to school district policies, book ratings and what school libraries have books flagged on the website as violating state law in their collections.

“We need this bill to protect Utah’s children when districts refuse to proactively follow the law,” Stephens said.

Two years after the passage of HB347, which created a mechanism in law to challenge school library books and other materials, “parents still have books in their children’s schools that can’t be read in school board meetings. After two years, children still have books in their schools that FCC regulations prohibit to be distributed by the media,” she said.

“Parents and grandparents have been and continue to be the main oversight for the sensitive materials law,” Stephens said.