Banning books from Utah schools statewide may get easier. Here’s why.

The draft proposal passed 10-4 along parties lines, with Republicans voting in favor.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kristin Richey of the Utah Eagle Forum holds up a list of "indecent" books during a meeting of the Education Interim Committee in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

A Utah lawmaker wants to make it easier to ban books from schools statewide, and his draft proposal was met with initial support Wednesday, when most of the Legislature’s Education Interim Committee moved to pass it.

West Jordan Republican Rep. Ken Ivory’s plan would trigger the removal of a single title from all Utah schools if at least three Utah school districts found it to be “objective sensitive material,” or if at least two school districts and five charter schools did.

It would also allow elected officials who represent “all or part” of where a school district or charter school sits to challenge whether a title should be available to students. Current law allows only those affiliated with a school or school district to do so.

The 10-4 vote to pass the draft legislation fell along party lines. It’ll be discussed further once next year’s legislative session begins in January. The four who opposed it Wednesday were the committee’s only Democrats: Sen. Kathleen Riebe; Rep. Carol Spackman Moss; Rep. Angela Romero; and Rep. Mark Wheatley.

Riebe expressed concern that the proposed two district-five charter threshold would mean that two smaller school districts could help influence state action — a reality she called unbalanced, because the districts may not represent a majority of Utah students.

(An initial draft of the proposal called for a threshold of one school district and five charters, but it was updated before Wednesday’s vote to two districts and five charters.)

Riebe instead proposed a substitute motion that would have changed that two district-five charter threshold to a variable amount of districts that represent at least 40% of Utah’s student population. The motion failed 10-4, again along party lines.

“Two small districts would actually determine the parents’ rights of the whole entire state,” Riebe said. “That’s not okay.”

‘Strikes the right balance’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brooke Stephens speaks in favor of removing books from school libraries during a meeting of the Education Interim Committee in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

Many who spoke in support of the draft proposal Wednesday argued it would help protect children. Brooke Stephens, of Utah Parents United, told lawmakers that having “books rated NC-17″ in schools “damages the soul” of children.

Park City parent Diane Livingston said content that depicts sexual abuse could trigger students who have experienced it.

“When they come across this material in their classroom, the English teacher is not the appropriate person to talk them through [that trauma],” she said.

Under the new proposal, if a person were to challenge a book, the title would undergo a required review process, which a “local education agency” would conduct: a school district’s board; a charter school’s governing board; or the state board for the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, the draft legislation states.

That review would evaluate a key difference: whether or not the challenged material is considered “objective” or “subjective” sensitive material. The Utah attorney general’s office would help compile guidance and training for such reviews, the proposal adds.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, during a meeting of the Education Interim Committee in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

“Objective” sensitive material is considered inherently pornographic or indecent in nature. If a title was found to be objectively sensitive under initial review, it would immediately be removed from school classrooms, libraries and school property, as well as school-sponsored assemblies, lectures or other events.

“Subjective” sensitive material may not meet the state’s definition of pornography or indecency, but would otherwise be considered “harmful” to youth because it “appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors,” along with other balancing standards, according the draft proposal — such as if a book contains no serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Such challenged material would still be accessible to students with parent permission during the review process. But if it was found to be subjectively sensitive, it would be removed.

Enough “subjective” determinations by school districts or charters would not trigger the statewide ban, though, because the proposed threshold only applies to “objective” sensitive material, according to the draft legislation.

“This proposed legislation strikes the right balance in empowering parents, protecting children, and giving the needed support and guidance to schools and districts,” said Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, in a statement after the committee meeting.

Pierucci is co-chair of the Education Interim Committee, and like all other Republicans on it, voted in favor of the proposal.

‘Government overreach’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, and Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, during a meeting of the Education Interim Committee in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

Some who spoke against the draft legislation Wednesday instead felt that it would take too much power away from Utah parents, librarians, and school district professionals.

This included parent Kevin Korous, who said decisions about the “age and subject appropriateness” of a book should be decided by those within a community, and not the state.

“I believe the statewide threshold takes away my voice, it takes away my wife’s voice, and it takes away parental rights,” he said. “I ask that these decisions be made at the local level.”

Alpine School District board member Julie King argued that her district’s review process is already working. The district has created 28 committees involving 112 parents, she said, and has “resolved issues at the most local level.”

“The amendments in the sensitive materials bill takes control from most parents and teachers in schools, and puts that on individuals in other counties,” King said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, directs remarks to House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, during debate on the term "criminal pornography" in a meeting of the Education Interim Committee in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

Legislation like this — if enacted — could also scare people away from becoming librarians and educators, Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, argued.

“We are undermining professional teachers and librarians when we have discussions like this, and bills that include things like ‘criminal pornography,’” she said. “They’re quitting, they’re leaving the profession, who’s coming into it? This is government overreach.”

Spackman Moss also questioned whether using terms such as “criminal pornography” to define objective sensitive material would make librarians and educators vulnerable to criminal prosecution.

“These definitions [in the draft legislation] all come from the criminal code,” said Managing Associate General Counsel Mike Curtis. “So the individual who hands pornography to a minor, who provides access to a minor, could be subject to criminal penalties.”

As to how that could happen — and whether it could happen before or after a proposed review process — was not detailed Wednesday.