Educators Are Emptying Bookshelves Under Legal Pressure

Republican lawmakers continue push for criminal penalties for making “inappropriate” books available to minors

Lawmakers in more than a dozen states want criminal penalties for librarians and educators who preserve access to books that legislators claim are inappropriate.

A measure in Indiana would strip away long-standing legal protections for schools and leave librarians and teachers open to felony charges for providing books deemed “harmful to minors.” The proposal passed the Indiana Senate Feb. 28 and will move on to the House.

In Georgia, Republican Sen. Greg Dolezal introduced a proposal that bans selling and distributing “obscene” material in libraries. It also removes protections for librarians against criminal prosecution. A similar plan is up for debate in Maine, and Iowa lawmakers have resurrected a book-review proposal that would fine school districts between $500 and $5,000 if they did not address violations in 14 days.

EveryLibrary, a non-profit political action committee for U.S. libraries, is tracking these and other bills.

Those pushing such plans call them “common sense.” Indiana Republican Jim Tomes said he’s just trying to protect “little tykes” from accessing inappropriate materials.

But at a time when book-banning is rampant across the country, these bills’ generic language leaves many anti-censorship advocates worried about the legal ramifications for staff and the chilling effect on classrooms. Traditionally, lawmakers have exempted educators from criminal penalties to avoid conflicts when studying subjects like art, which often includes renderings of nudity.

“This bill is not about protecting minors from harm,” advocacy group MADVoters Indiana tweeted of Tomes’ proposal. “What this bill does do is put yet another target on public schools, marginalized groups, and free speech.”

The ACLU’s Maine office rallied followers to contact legislators.

“LD 123 would mean Maine educators could be fined, arrested, or prosecuted for sharing or offering to share any educational resources deemed obscene or inappropriate for students,” the group tweeted. “Censoring ideas from public discourse in schools is anti-democratic. It disproportionately silences the viewpoints of LGBTQ+ people and people of color.”

While similar efforts failed last year in Indiana and Idaho, Missouri and Florida both passed legislation that leaves school librarians and teachers facing fines or jail time if they distribute materials lawmakers deem inappropriate. So far in Florida, that’s meant empty classroom shelves and brown-paper barriers covering books as Sunshine State schools pull thousands of volumes for “review.”

Brian Covey, a former full-time substitute teacher in Duval County, Fla., posted a video of schools’ empty bookshelves on Twitter after his son told him that his classroom books had disappeared. Covey lost his job Feb. 16, after his tweets went viral.

“They removed every single book from my children’s classrooms,” tweeted Covey, who has two elementary-school aged children. “I read books about the consequences of this when I was in school.”


Florida’s Department of Education issued guidance in January that said laws the state passed last summer about what books it allows in school libraries also apply to all the titles on classroom shelves.

That added to a statute levying fines of as much as $5,000 and potential jail time for distributing “harmful material” to people under 18. The result? Some schools pulled all books to make sure their titles matched the new guidelines.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has said the books are just under review. But the requirement that a certified media specialist review the books before they return to circulation has meant weeks of empty shelves. “99.4 percent of books available 4 weeks ago are unavailable to students,” Covey tweeted Feb. 27, adding that at the current rate of review it would take more than 16 years for all books to return.

Nonetheless, conservative Florida lawmakers are pressing forward. Currently under consideration: A proposal that would expand the ability to challenge any book that “depicts or describes sexual conduct” and require that a challenge immediately trigger a book’s removal from shelves during review.

Kasey Meehan, the program director at PEN America’s Freedom to Read, called the bill “alarming” in a Feb. 27 statement, adding that the proposal “would make it possible for a single parent in a district to enact a ban on any book simply by challenging it, codifying what amounts to a heckler’s veto over books.”


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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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