‘Does that not make the point?’: Utah lawmaker cut off while reading from Sarah J. Maas book during book ban debate

The interaction unfolded as lawmakers debated HB29, which would make it easier to remove titles from Utah schools statewide.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, discusses HB29 before it was passed by the House Education Committee at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024.

It started with four words. Then seven more.

Rep. Kevin Ivory managed to read aloud another 11 from fantasy fiction author Sarah J. Maas’ “House of Earth and Blood” before he was cut off Tuesday during a discussion about banning books in Utah schools.

It was House Education Committee chair Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, who stopped Ivory mid-sentence, citing a point of order made by House Minority Leader Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City.

“I think we know where he’s going with that,” Romero said. “I don’t want to hear that.”

“Does that not make the point?” Ivory asked. “This is a meeting of adults for Pete’s sakes.”

The interaction unfolded as lawmakers debated Ivory’s HB29, which would make it easier to remove titles from Utah schools statewide.

Under the proposal, a single book would be removed from all Utah schools if at least three school districts banned the same book for being “objectively” sensitive, or at least two school districts and five charter schools did.

That means less than 10% of Utah school districts and charter schools combined could trigger a book’s statewide removal, opponents of the bill pointed out during the contentious committee hearing.

The bill would also expand who may challenge a book. Current law allows only those affiliated with a school or school district to challenge a book, but this measure would also allow elected officials who represent “all or part” of where a school district or charter school sits to submit challenges.

A previous version of the bill would have required at least three school districts or at least one district and five charter schools to trigger a book’s statewide removal. Still, those opposed to the bill, including the state’s largest teachers union, said it allows a minority to make decisions for the majority.

“Literally a couple of individuals in just a couple of communities can usurp the ability of locally elected school boards to represent their own constituents by holding a review process,” said Sara Jones of the United Education Association.

How would books be banned?

Ivory said the proposed legislation builds upon HB374, passed in 2022, which effectively banned “sensitive materials” and required districts to independently develop a review process for challenged materials.

The latest bill would provide clarity and establish a uniform review process for titles that are challenged, he said.

Under the proposal, once a title is challenged, a local education agency — such as a school district — would then conduct a review. That review would evaluate a key difference: whether the challenged material meets “objective” or “subjective” sensitivity standards, which are outlined in the bill.

Ivory said “objective” sensitive material is any content deemed “criminally” harmful to minors, such as pornographic or otherwise indecent material that does not have “literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” as outlined by Utah law.

The Utah attorney general’s office would help compile review guidance and training for local education agencies, the bill notes.

“Subjective” sensitive material would not meet Utah’s definition of pornography or indecency, but would otherwise be deemed “harmful” to youth, because it “appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors,” among other balancing standards.

If after an initial review, a title meets that “objective” criteria, it would be immediately removed. And if enough school districts or charters do so, it would trigger statewide removal from not just classrooms, school libraries or school property, but also from school-sponsored assemblies, lectures or other events, the bill states.

If a title does not meet that “objective” criteria, it would then be reviewed to determine whether it is considered “subjective” sensitive material, the bill states.

During that “subjective” review period, students may have access to the challenged title with parental consent, according to the bill. But if it’s ultimately considered “subjective” sensitive material, the book would be removed and students may no longer have access.

Such a determination by enough districts or charters would not trigger the statewide ban, though, because the proposed threshold only applies to “objective” sensitive materials, the bill states.

Limits on challenges

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, during a meeting of the House Education Committee at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024.

If one person makes three unsuccessful challenges during a given school year, they would not be able to trigger another sensitive material review for the rest of that academic year, the bill states.

But that person would be able to appeal a local education agency’s previous decision, no matter if a title was removed or retained. The appeal would then be brought to a vote in a public meeting to decide the outcome, the bill states.

Those in support of the bill argued Tuesday that the measure would protect children.

Brooke Stephens, a member of conservative parent rights group Utah Parents United, argued parents “wrongfully assume” that there are no books above what would be the equivalent of a PG-13 movie rating on school shelves.

She runs the website ratedbooks.org, which tracks and rates books in Utah school districts, and said students have access to books that contain “explicit references to apparent sexual activities such as bestiality, assault and sadomasochistic abuse.”

But opponents expressed caution. Peter Bromberg, co-chair of the Utah Library Association, said Tuesday there were aspects of the bill that the association supports, like limiting the number of times someone may unsuccessfully challenge a material, for instance.

Establishing a trigger for statewide removal, though, is not something the association supports, he said.

If the bill passes, it would cost the Utah State Board of Education an estimated $2.1 million in ongoing costs, according to the bill’s fiscal note. The measure passed out of committee Tuesday.