Gov. Cox signs bill making it easier to ban books from Utah schools statewide

The new law allows for a single book to be removed from all Utah public schools if a threshold number of schools or districts determine it amounts to “objective sensitive material.”

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

Despite pleas from some of Utah’s largest education and reading organizations to veto a bill that makes it easier to ban books from schools statewide, Gov. Spencer Cox has instead signed it into law.

HB29 was among 72 bills Cox signed off on Monday, according to a news release from his office.

“We recognize those who have worked on this issue and the compromise reached by the Legislature,” Cox said in a statement.

The measure 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.

That effectively means less than 10% of Utah school districts and charter schools combined can trigger a book’s statewide removal.

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.

On Feb. 28, following the bill’s passage, Utah education advocates penned an open letter to Cox urging him to veto the bill.

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.

“House Bill 29 infringes on parents’ rights to decide which books are best for their own children,” said Gretchen Zaitzeff, president of the Utah Educational Library Media Association. “And that infringes on a student’s right to exercise intellectual freedom and their constitutional right.”

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.”

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 during an interim legislative session last November — suggesting 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.

And it’s seen several revisions since. 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.

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 takes effect July 1 and applies retroactively to all “objective sensitive materials” removed from student access prior to that date.