Automatic statewide ban for certain books in Utah schools? Bill heads to Gov. Cox’s desk

The proposal finalized Wednesday had seen several revisions since its introduction.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A woman walks past dozens of banned books 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 bill that would make it easier to ban titles in public schools statewide is headed to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk.

A bill that would overhaul the book-banning process in Utah and make it easier to ban titles in public schools statewide is headed to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk.

West Jordan Republican Rep. Ken Ivory, who sponsored HB29, said Tuesday that the legislation is meant to create “uniformity” when it comes to removing books and other materials from Utah’s K-12 classrooms and libraries.

“So we don’t have things that are criminally indecent and taken out in one area, but then perhaps used in a classroom in another area,” Ivory further explained in a conference committee discussion Tuesday, as lawmakers hammered out compromises to the bill draft.

The final version of the bill, which the House passed Wednesday, allows for a single book to be removed from all Utah public schools if at least three school districts (or at least two school districts and five charter schools) determine the book amounts to “objective sensitive material” — pornographic or otherwise indecent material that does not have “literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors,” as outlined by Utah law.

The updated bill adds a caveat: Once that threshold is met, the Utah State Board of Education then has the option of convening a hearing within 60 days to discuss the possibility of reinstating a book statewide. If no hearing is held, the statewide removal stands. But if board leaders vote to reinstate a book, the districts and charter schools that originally opted to remove it may still keep it off shelves.

Should Cox sign it, the bill would take effect on July 1 and apply retroactively to all “objective sensitive materials” removed from student access prior to that date.

The proposal finalized Wednesday had seen several revisions since its introduction. An earlier draft would have allowed a local school board to override a state ban within its own jurisdiction, if the board scheduled a discussion and vote on the title’s statewide ban within 60 days of being notified.

House Democrats on Tuesday tried to preserve that local power, arguing that the legislation stood to give a small number of school districts the ability to dictate what happens in districts statewide.

“This bill takes power from elected school boards across this state because three school districts didn’t like a book,” Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said.

An even earlier version of the bill, however, lacked any process for potentially returning a book to shelves if a statewide ban was triggered.

The bill’s final version also eliminated a prior provision that would have allowed any and all elected officials who represent “all or part” of a school district’s boundaries, or a charter school’s location, to challenge a book.

Current law only allows people affiliated with a school or school district to challenge materials. The amendments now clarify that local school board members would also be able to submit challenges.

How would the book-banning process work?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, sums up HB29 during a House Education Committee hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024.

The updated bill, according to Ivory, builds upon 2022′s HB374, which effectively banned “sensitive materials” and required school districts to independently develop a process to review challenged materials.

That review process would become uniform statewide under the latest bill. Once a title is challenged, a school district or charter would have to specifically evaluate a key difference: whether the material meets “objective” or “subjective” sensitivity standards.

“We’re not trying to ban books simply because sexuality is mentioned or sexual encounters [are] briefly described,” the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said last week. “This bill is designed to ensure that material our children and teenagers have access to does not include explicit content that they are legally [unable] to consent to yet.”

“Objective” sensitive material is any content deemed “criminally” harmful to minors, or found to violate Utah’s “bright line” rule, by being inherently pornographic.

If after an initial review, a title meets that “objective” criteria, a district would immediately remove it. And if enough school districts or charters did, it would trigger a statewide ban.

At that point, the state school board would have 10 days to notify all districts and charters that they must remove the specified title from student access. Board members would then have 60 days from the date of that notification to schedule and consider a vote to overturn the statewide ban.

If a title does not meet “objective” criteria, districts and charters would then review it to determine whether it is considered “subjective” sensitive material, the bill states.

“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.

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 would only apply to “objective” sensitive materials, the bill states.

The bill also restricts the number of times a person can challenge material. If someone makes three unsuccessful challenges during a given school year, they wouldn’t be allowed to trigger another sensitive material review until the following academic year.

Bill goes ‘too far,’ one lawmaker says

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Books labeled as banned in Utah sit on a shelf at the Children's Reading Room in the Leonardo on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.

Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, opposed the amended bill during Senate discussions last week, saying that while she supports removing pornography from Utah classrooms, the bill “goes too far.”

“My problem is that there’s a definition for pornography that we are using, and the definition describes erotic and titillating,” said Riebe, the Senate minority whip. “When we think about something like incest or rape, it’s not titillating. It’s not erotic. It’s a fact that is unfortunately happening across the world. So, some people find this triggering. Other people find it liberating that they are not alone in this horrific act that has happened to them.”

Riebe further explained that her opposition to the bill, and others’, is not because they “want” porn in classrooms, but because they see it as an overreach that could prevent students who want to learn about important, but uncomfortable, real-life experiences from doing so.

“I, personally, find it offensive when we have been called groomers and pedophiles,” Riebe said. “I believe that uncomfortable conversations build your capacity and empathy and make you understand things that you might not have been exposed to.”

Weiler countered that the bill’s sole intent is to “ban illicit pornography.”

“It does not ban any content because it explores racism, violence or alternative lifestyles or other controversial subject matters,” Weiler said. “This is not an attempt to censor material for the sake of convenience or because the government disagrees with the material’s message.”

Let Utah Read, a coalition dedicated to preserving the freedom of reading, plans to host a “Read-in” at the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday between 3-6 p.m. It will begin with a reading hour followed by addresses from authors and other speakers, organizers said.