Utah teachers could be criminally liable if banned books are found in their classrooms, new bill proposes

A proposed bill could make public school employees subject to misdemeanor charges if they keep materials deemed “objectively sensitive” available to students.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Various banned books are displayed on a table in Weller Book Works in Trolley Square for Banned Book Week in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023. A proposed bill could make public school employees subject to misdemeanor charges if they keep materials deemed “objectively sensitive” available to students.

Utah public school employees found to keep certain banned books available to students could be held criminally liable, according to a newly proposed bill.

West Jordan Republican Rep. Ken Ivory introduced HB417, which would allow teachers and other public school employees to be charged with a class A misdemeanor if they keep materials specifically deemed “objectively sensitive” available to students. A separate proposed bill backed by Ivory, HB29, describes “objectively sensitive” material as content that’s determined to be inherently pornographic and in violation of Utah law.

The ability to charge public school employees in these circumstances would stem from proposed changes to Utah’s criminal code regarding indecent public displays and trafficking pornographic or indecent material on school property, according to the bill.

If found guilty, they could be charged a fine of no less than $500 and could be jailed for a term lasting no fewer than 30 days, according to the bill.

Ivory did not immediately respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment. The state’s largest teachers union, the Utah Education Association, had not taken a public position on the bill as of Wednesday afternoon. A spokesperson for the association didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

John Arthur, a sixth-grade teacher at Meadowlark Elementary who was named Utah’s Teacher of the Year in 2020, called the bill “messy.” He also said it sends a message that lawmakers don’t trust or respect teachers.

“The biggest issue that this raises for me, is that it will create situations of chaos and confusion,” Arthur said. “When the real question is, why aren’t we having healthy, productive conversations as communities about the books that our kids are reading?”

Under the bill, school districts would also no longer enjoy “governmental immunity” when it comes to noncompliance claims regarding any banned “objectively sensitive” material. Governmental immunity is a provision in Utah code that protects such entities from being sued for something that was part of their governmental duties.

The new measure would also prevent local school boards from cutting people off in public meetings who try to read aloud from books or titles that are currently accessible to students.

The initiative comes after Ivory was cut off while reading a passage from fantasy fiction author Sarah J. Maas’ book “House of Earth and Blood” during a House Education Committee discussion last week about banning books in Utah schools.

The proposed legislation builds upon Ivory’s other “sensitive materials” bill, HB29, which would make it easier to remove titles from Utah schools statewide.

Under that measure, 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 committee hearing last week.

The process of banning a book would depend on whether or not, upon initial review, the book is considered “objective” or “subjective” sensitive material, according to HB29.

Unlike “objective” sensitive material, “subjective” sensitive material wouldn’t meet Utah’s definition of pornography or indecency. But it would otherwise be deemed “harmful” to youth, because it “appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors,” among other balancing standards.

The statewide removal threshold would only apply to “objective” sensitive materials, the bill states. HB29 passed through the House committee last week.