Utah advocates urge Gov. Cox to veto bill that would automatically ban certain books from schools statewide

The Legislature passed the bill last week, though it still awaits Cox’s signature.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erika George speaks at a "read-in" organized by Let Utah Read at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.

Utah education advocates urged Gov. Spencer Cox in an open letter Tuesday to veto a bill the Legislature sent to his desk last week that would make it easier to ban books from schools statewide.

The letter was signed by leaders of organizations including the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union; the Utah chapter of PEN America; national library advocacy group EveryLibrary; the Utah Library Association; and the Utah Educational Library Media Association.

The coalition, dubbed “Let Utah Read,” stated that the bill “is a looming threat to the vibrant tapestry of ideas that should adorn our educational landscape.”

HB29, if enacted, would encourage individuals to stifle the voices of diverse authors and perspectives, casting a chilling shadow over the sanctity of our First Amendment rights,” the letter stated.

The version of the bill the House passed last week would remove a book from all Utah public schools if at least three school districts (or at least two school districts and five charter schools) determined it contained “objective sensitive material.” That’s defined by Utah law as inherently pornographic or otherwise indecent material that doesn’t have “literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.”

The bill added a caveat: Once that threshold is met, the Utah State Board of Education could hold a hearing within 60 days to potentially reinstate the book statewide. If no hearing is held, the statewide removal stands. But if board leaders voted to reinstate a book, the districts and charter schools that originally opted to remove it could still keep it off shelves.

If Cox were to sign the measure into law, it would not only go into effect on July 1, but also retroactively apply that threshold to titles determined to be objectively sensitive before that date.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kelly Whited Jones participates in a "read-in" organized by Let Utah Read at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.

The bill’s final version would also allow local school board members to challenge books. Current law only allows people affiliated with a school or school district — but who are not elected — to challenge materials.

Cox’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

The letter also expressed what many opponents have argued since the bill’s conception: that it gives a few districts the power to control what books remain on all school shelves across the state.

Democratic State Sen. Kathleen Riebe proposed an alternative to the plan during an interim legislative session last November — that a book could be removed statewide if a variable amount of districts that represent at least 40% of Utah’s student population chose to do so. The motion failed along party lines

Advocates argued in the letter that the bill not only takes power away from locally elected school boards, but also creates “localized biases” for students “that could suffocate the spirit of intellectual curiosity.” That would represent “a dangerous encroachment on our fundamental freedoms,” the group wrote.

“It seeks to muzzle the voices of dissent and erase the invaluable contributions of authors whose works have enriched the educational journey of countless students over the years,” the letter read.

The day after the Legislature passed the bill, Let Utah Read hosted a “read-in” at the Capitol, which began with a reading hour followed by addresses from authors and other speakers.