Cathy Lanigan: Books should be the least of Utah lawmakers’ worries

Are we protecting our students or depriving them of choice?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, comments on a bill in the Senate, on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.

At the June 14 Education Interim Committee meeting, elected state legislators worked hard to protect our children … from reading.

Just one example: There was discussion of the need to pull “The Freedom Writers Diary” by Erin Gruwell from Utah high school curricula. This book, frequently taught at the high school level, documents the experiences of one young teacher and her students as they navigate the overwhelming challenges of poverty and violence.

Reading about other disadvantaged youth throughout history offers Gruwell’s students a critical lifeline. To be clear, our elected legislators worry that students need to be protected from books about growing up in impoverished communities and the elevating effects of reading? For far too many of our youth, this means protecting them from reading about lives too much like their own.

Indeed, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services reported 8.5% of children in Utah 17 years old and younger were living below the poverty line in 2021, the most recent year the data is available. Those 8.5% of Utah school children are likely to have lived experiences with distinct similarities to Gruwell’s students and would therefore stand to benefit directly by understanding the ways that reading carved a path up and out of desperate situations.

Representatives like John Johnson are proposing punitive legal action against educators and school librarians who dare expose our children to this “pornography.” In other words, Sen. Johnson is arguing that the lived reality of youth in disadvantaged situations is pornographic and harmful to the students of Utah.

The potentially damaging fallout from HB 374 goes much, much farther than limiting classroom materials. Pulling material from school libraries is even more extreme because it restricts student choice as protected by the First Amendment. Furthermore, the threat of legal action against our educators and librarians implies that materials have not already been filtered and selected by credentialed and vetted professionals. Are we protecting our students or depriving them of choice?

Meanwhile, shootings on K-12 campuses are on pace to reach 400 in 2023, outpacing last year’s 273 according to the 53 years of data updated daily by the K-12 School Shooting Database. Here in Utah, our K-12 students now routinely run through school shooting drills, a constant reminder of the real threat of violence. The substantial resources going toward filtering books in schools are not protecting anyone from the ongoing threat of gun violence on campus.

Admittedly, “The Freedom Writers Diary” includes details of actual violent situations as well as significant use of foul language employed by her students, but the book chronicles the reality of daily life in that community, and not one word of it is either titillating or “intended to cause sexual excitement” as Merriam-Webster defines pornography.

These “Bright Red Line” policies drain our school districts, and thereby our youth, of vital resources while ignoring the real-world threats our youth wake up to every day, such as the threat of global nuclear conflict, rising global temperatures and shortages of food, water and clean air.

Sen. Johnson, let’s keep our children safe from poverty, gun violence, war and pollution. The reading will take care of itself.

(Cathy Lanigan) Cathy Lanigan serves on the board of the Friends of the Park City Library.

Cathy Lanigan is the parent of three graduates of Park City High School. She currently serves on the board of the Friends of the Park City Library and the University of Michigan English Department Advisory Board, and recently completed her term of service on the Park City Education Foundation Board.