Utah lawmaker accuses school district of distributing porn to minors through books

It’s the latest attack on Davis School District, which has limited access to the Bible but kept a title that Sen. John Johnson finds inappropriate.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, pictured on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. Johnson railed against Davis School District on Wednesday, June 14, 2023, for removing the Bible for younger students while maintaining broader access to the book "The Freedom Writers Diary" that he finds too explicit for schools.

A conservative state senator is accusing a Utah school district of possibly being an “accessory to the distribution of pornography to minors” because it has kept a book on library shelves that includes passages describing oral sex and other explicit acts in detail.

And that could be a felony charge for Davis School District under state law, said Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, on Wednesday during the Legislature’s education interim committee meeting.

“The definition of pornography in Utah code is pretty clear in my mind,” he added after alluding to the few explicit passages in “The Freedom Writers Diary.”

That book — where teens describe difficulties in their lives and which the 2007 film is based on — was reviewed by the district for inappropriate content this past academic year and deemed OK for middle school and high school students to access.

But Johnson noted he’s mad that Davis School District used the same review process and decided to remove the Bible from elementary and middle schools because of “vulgarity or violence.”

The lawmaker said he thinks the district has failed to understand the 2022 state law banning “pornographic or indecent” materials from schools and applied it incorrectly to keep some titles that should be removed and remove others he thinks should be kept. He said Davis might need to face penalties.

“We haven’t had a case like that so far,” he said.

The audience that packed the room at the Utah Capitol clapped and cheered at his suggestion.

He was supported by other Republican colleagues on the committee, including Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, who added: “We should not be having pornographic material distributed to our kids on school grounds.”

The punitive response from lawmakers is just the latest attack on the northern Utah school district that has become ground zero in the fight over what’s appropriate literature for children in the state.

But the legislative committee also acknowledged for the first time that the law calling for the book reviews might need some clarification. And members said that might be why they’re not getting the results they wanted.

“It is unclear,” Lisonbee noted toward the end of the more than three-hour-long meeting.

Davis first drew attention in March when a parent challenge of the Bible became public. The request noted that the parent had become frustrated with the other books being removed under the new state law, which has largely been used to target titles about the LGBTQ+ community.

The parent cited Bible scenes of incest, bestiality and rape in the King James edition. Davis School District assigned it to a review committee of staff and parents to analyze, as required by the 2022 law. They found it did not violate the law for “pornographic or indecent” materials, which would mean it would need to be removed immediately from all schools under what’s called a “bright line” rule, which doesn’t require taking into account the whole of a book.

But the committee did find under the law that the book wasn’t appropriate for younger students, and decided it should only be retained at the district’s high schools. The determination has been appealed and will be now weighed by the district’s full Board of Education.

During the legislative meeting Wednesday, Davis School District Superintendent Dan Linford said he understands the Bible decision “has been controversial. And I apologize for that. In a democracy, sometimes those things happen.”

Linford said that he would like the whole process with the Bible to play out, allowing the appeal to be heard by the school board, where he believes the text will likely be reinstated.

Challenges in defining porn

It’s the same argument the superintendent made Monday, appearing before Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee. He was pilloried there, with lawmakers calling the district’s decision on the Bible “embarassing” for the state and a move toward “accepting the religion of atheism and hedonism.”

One legislator there tried to pressure Linford to read the passages from “The Freedom Writers Diary” out loud.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Davis School District Board of Education appointed Dr. Daniel R. Linford as the new superintendent Wednesday, April 20, 2022.

On Wednesday, Lisonbee told the superintendent: “You didn’t want to read what was on the board, but we’re making our kids exposed to that in a public library that’s funded by taxpayers funds.”

Already, spurred by the Bible decision, another complaint has been filed for Davis School District to now review the Book of Mormon, the foundational text for the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for containing violence. Most members of the state Legislature here are members of that faith.

Some members of the interim education committee said Davis School District’s process is flawed. They argued that if a text, including the controversial “Gender Queer” or “The Freedom Writers Diary,” is challenged and contains explicit passages of sexual arousal, intercourse, sodomy, masturbation or fondling, as laid out by the law, then it should be banned under the “bright line.”

They suggested a district attorney or librarian could make that decision, without it having to go to a parent committee to determine, which Davis has been doing.

But Michael Curtis, an attorney who works for the Legislature, said technically as the law is written, Davis is correct in having parents review the challenged titles.

That explanation came after the lawmakers had already applauded other districts, including Washington County School District, for bypassing parent committees for those books.

Lisonbee said the law should be reworked to better streamline “bright line” removals and not have those up to the discretion of committees. And the lawmakers voted to open a bill file to study that, make amendments and possibly have district school boards take a vote on what to do with each book challenge. Determining what is pornography, Lisonbee said, should be “an objective measure.”

Former educator Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, said she doesn’t believe it’s that clear. Is the classic “The Scarlett Letter,” she asked, pornographic because it alludes to a sexual affair? Where is the line? How does the Bible not cross it?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shelves of the Holy Bible and the Book of Mormon pictured in April 2004.

The Bible, some of her colleagues argued, isn’t pornographic because the passages of explicit acts are not detailed; it’s just stated and not “prurient,” they suggested. The other books they’ve taken issue with, though, are more explicit or lengthy in their descriptions, graphically naming anatomical parts and actions, they said. A few of the legislators struggled to put it into words and said that, too, could be looked at in amending the law.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, added that she received an email from a person who was a victim of incest. That individual told her that reading a book about someone who experienced the same crime “saved her life.” Riebe said she worries that outright removing all of those books ignores real, lived experiences.

It should instead be up to parents, she suggested, to watch what their kids are reading if they are concerned.

Under a 2023 law outlined by legislative attorney Curtis, parents are supposed to be given access by districts to review what books their kids check out at school. And parents are specifically notified if their child checks out a book that’s being challenged.

Book bans across the state

Granite School District Superintendent Rich Nye said the district hasn’t tracked how many parents are using that function. But he noted it has had 94 books challenged through the 2022 law — from a total of just six parents.

Of those, 23 were initially removed and 26 restricted to older age groups, but there are appeals on 43 of those, noted Granite spokesperson Ben Horsley.

The committee also heard from Washington County School District, which has had 69 complaints and removed 52 books under the “bright line.” Jordan School District has seen 39 challenges and banned 17 titles.

Davis School District has had the most requests for review with 101. It has removed 37 books. The other districts, though, have not had religious texts challenged like Davis.

Davina Sauthoff, the library media specialist for the Utah State Board of Education, said the state has surveyed school districts about how many book challenges they’ve received. By the start of this month, the districts that responded — which she said account for 79% of the students in the state — had received 547 book review requests.

Of those, 263 had been removed and 49 restricted by age (some of the titles are duplicated across districts).

By October of last year, the total number of book challenges reported to the state board was 280. So it has more than doubled in the past eight months.

What did parents have to say?

Some parents who spoke Wednesday during the public comment period — which was limited to one minute per person and 11 speakers total — supported having those books reviewed and talked about the damage of being exposed to porn.

Lorraine Starkie, a parent, said it “destroys families.” She talked about a family member she knew who was exposed to porn as a child and how it harmed them.

Brooke Stephens, the curriculum director for the conservative group Utah Parents United that has led many of the book challenges, said she still thinks, even with the review process, many books are remaining on shelves that shouldn’t be.

“There are many parents and many kids still being affected,” she said.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Candice Pierucci leads a group from Utah Parents United on tour of the State Capitol on Monday, January 10, 2022.

Parents and teachers, though, also argued in favor of keeping books available. Beverly Ahlstrom, a teacher at Davis High, said there have been “unintended consequences” to the law, with titles about minority groups being removed. Her LGBTQ+ students and students of color, she added, are feeling targeted.

“They feel they have little representation and voice and are losing what voice they have,” she said. “In the eyes of youth, Utah is not a safe space.”

One parent, Andre LeFleur, said he believes kids are far more likely to access porn online at home than by checking out a book at their school library. He also said he thinks the “bright line” for determining what is porn is subjective, based on different cultural standards. And he suggested that the Bible does violate it for containing “The Song of Solomon,” an erotic poem.

“I would read from that,” he said, “but that would violate the rules of this forum.”