Utah parents have filed hundreds of requests to remove specific titles from K-12 libraries since a new law took effect in May banning “pornographic or indecent” books in schools.
In a report last week to lawmakers, the Utah State Board of Education said it has tracked 280 complaints on books — so far — in less than six months under the new law. And that’s from just nine of the 41 school districts in the state.
The board expects that number of complaints, some of which target the same titles but in different locations, to jump when it gets reports back from every district and charter.
Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, applauded the effort by parents to call out what they see as inappropriate books. He said he has read some of the titles parents have expressed concern about and was “completely shocked” they were available to kids in public schools.
“I read a lot in the press that we’re banning books or we’re burning books,” Johnson said. “But I really feel strongly that we have an obligation to protect the innocence of children.”
Of the 280 book complaints, state Deputy Superintendent Angela Stallings said that most were removed or restricted. Schools removed 84 of the titles and put 63 behind the counter of libraries, requiring parent permission for students to check out.
Schools did not take action on 122 titles, leaving them available for check out. The remaining books are either currently being reviewed by districts or were not found in the school catalogue.
All of the book requests for removal were at junior high and high schools, Stallings said. No elementary schools had complaints. And most of the concerns — 83% — came from parents. Another 17% were from school staff or a members of a district’s school board.
The numbers provide a first glimpse at how the controversial law on sensitive materials in schools is playing out.
Enforcing the law and examples of the books
HB374 came in response to a book banning movement that has been led by conservative parent groups across the nation, including in Utah.
In Canyons School District, nine books have been targeted. In Washington County School District, five titles were reviewed and two pulled. And in Alpine School District, 52 books were put behind the counter.
Most of those considered offensive focus on race and the LGBTQ community, including “The Bluest Eye” by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel about the author’s journey of self-identity. Those opposed to removing the books say the effort feels targeted to silence minority voices.
HB374 instructs schools to immediately remove any books — both from the library and the classroom — that include “pornographic” material. That can be in images, drawings or written descriptions, clarified Michael Curtis, general counsel for the Utah Legislature, during a Wednesday committee meeting on the law.
Based on Utah law, something is indecent if it includes explicit sexual arousal, stimulation, masturbation, intercourse, sodomy or fondling. Curtis said the book doesn’t need to be “taken as a whole” in those situations or left on the shelf during a review. If there is a scene involving any of those acts, according to HB374, it should be immediately removed. That’s known as a “bright line,” and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes echoed that in a statement on the measure.
State law on porn says material depicting those acts, even if just one scene, has “no serious value for minors.” Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, the sponsor of the measure, quoted from that during his presentation on Wednesday. The state law on pornography was approved in 2016 when lawmakers here declared porn a public health crisis.
Anything that is still flagged as indecent but does not directly include something on that list can be looked at by a school district for providing value in its entirety, beyond just one scene.
That is the most direct interpretation of the law yet, which has caused confusion and continued to raise questions about implementation Wednesday.
“You have no right to have a pornographic book on a school shelf,” Ivory said.
Ivory shared a PowerPoint during the committee hearing that showed blurred out images from several graphic novels that have been targeted by conservative parent groups for removal. One was “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel, which includes a scene with oral sex. The book is a memoir about the author’s childhood and complicated family relationships. Ivory noted it is available in a Park City junior high.
He included a scene depicting masturbation, too, in the graphic novel “Flamer” by Mike Curato. It is a semi-autobiographical book about a teen who is struggling with realizing he is gay. The book is in a Davis junior high, according to Ivory.
Ivory also quoted passages from “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood that depict a child porn ring. The lawmaker said students can check out the book at two high schools in Davis School District.
“This is in some of our schools,” he said. “This one just makes me ill.”
He called the books “beyond out of bounds” and said they “clearly violate” the law. But he said some school districts have pushed back against enforcing the ban.
Ivory had parents join him to speak about their experiences trying to get books removed. Brooke Stephens, a member of Utah Parents United, a coalition of parents that pushes for conservative policies in schools and has led the fight against books here, said she has requested several books be pulled from the shelves in Davis School District, where her kids attend.
She said the district has not acted yet on her complaint.
“Why is this still accessible by our students at their peril?” she asked. “It’s very damaging. We’re putting all of these children at risk.”
Concerns about lawsuits and Ivory’s next bill proposal
Patty Norman, also a deputy superintendent for the state, said she has not seen schools refusing to review books.
She described the actions of a “large Utah school district” as an example of how the ban is working.
The school district has 200,000 unique book titles across its libraries, she said. It had 202 challenges on 42 unique titles, Norman said. And 10 of the books were removed (though it’s 50 total because there were multiple copies across the 87 schools). But, that accounts for far less than 1% of the total collection, Norman said.
She also said it took district staff 500 hours to review the complaints and about $20,000 in compensation for those employees.
Norman called it “time well spent,” but urged lawmakers to be patient as districts work through kinks in implementation. She also asked them to allocate additional funding to support the review process.
There also were concerns during the hearing about lawsuits against school districts going both ways — for removing books and violating the First Amendment or for leaving books on the shelves and violating state law.
Curtis, the general counsel, said litigation is likely, and there is nothing in HB374 to indemnify local school districts from that.
“That is sort of the dynamics that I think [school districts] are in now, sort of picking a lawsuit to defend,” he said.
For now, school districts are required to have a policy for how they will review books when concerns are brought up. And starting in November, there will be a process through the Utah State Board of Education for parents to appeal if they don’t feel like a school district has followed its policy.
But the threat of a lawsuit is causing significant concern, said Stallings.
The hearing was cut short Wednesday due to time constraints, before several school districts had a chance to respond and before those in the packed room could speak during public comment. Johnson, the committee chair, said the group of lawmakers would reconvene on the topic during the next interim legislative meetings next month.
Meanwhile, Ivory said he is planning on drafting a follow-up bill that would look at how school libraries acquire books in the first place, and would set limits at the front end on what they are allowed to put on shelves.