Opinion: There’s a tragic irony behind Utah’s book bans

We’re so distracted by arguments over books, we’ve lost sight of what really matters.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A shelf of books labeled "Banned in Utah" at Ken Sanders bookstore at the Leonardo in Salt Lake City. on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022.

There’s much ado about nothing in the Utah Legislature’s Education Committee again.

Allegedly, they want to protect children — a noble cause, at least superficially. But the danger? Imagined sewers of pornographic filth bubbling up in school libraries. Their proposed solution? Make it even easier for a small minority to control what everyone else’s children can read in the name of “parent’s rights.”

This is ironic.

One of my students was killed in January 2022 because another student brought a gun to a fistfight. The gun was loaded with hollow point bullets, not books.

Tell me again how books are the problem?

There are zero pornographic performances or displays in school libraries, yet that statute is intentionally misapplied to books. I’m old enough to remember when some students sought out National Geographic magazines for the “naked pictures,” and that wasn’t “porn.” There is space for nuanced conversation about age appropriate books and community standards, but I have complete confidence that professional librarians and licensed educators, including principals, are open to those legitimate concerns without nanny-state micromanagement. This is a local issue where local control should hold pre-eminence.

If students are accessing pornography at schools, it’s through their cell phones, not library books. Calling the cops about library books is not a healthy way to discuss concerns. Neither is legislating culture war issues at the behest of fringe groups determined to ban books they deem offensive for any number of random reasons.

The Utah Constitution grants the general control and supervision of public schools to the State Board of Education, yet the part-time Utah Legislature routinely usurps this power and makes a mess of things during their three month session each winter.

In their policy priorities, unfunded mandates often rise to the top. Mandates like HB 374, intended to rid school libraries of “porn” which cost Granite School District at least 2,500 hours of work and $100,000 as of June 2023. What did we get for that? A brief, nationally embarrassing Bible Ban in Davis School District and a constitutionally questionable “bright line” rule that is restricting student first amendment rights.

We’re so distracted by arguments over books, we’ve lost sight of what really matters — and we are losing our most precious resource, our children, because of it.

There is a useful historical analogy: the Liberum Veto. While not well known in the west, there was a time in Polish history where any member of the Sejm, their legislative body, could object to any bill being considered or close the session and nullify every act they had passed into law. In theory, this meant every bill had to be passed unanimously. In fact, it led to widespread corruption and the eventual partition of Poland as special interests and outsiders caused havoc.

In Utah, most bills passed by the Legislature have bipartisan support and many pass unanimously every year. However, the power of the supermajority has encouraged special interests to achieve corrupt levels of access and influence where even accidentally telling the truth doesn’t stop harmful legislation. Worse, individuals with access, deliberately misrepresenting research, get millions of dollars for pet projects like school vouchers and very nearly for ill-advised lake dredging. We find ourselves, thanks to gerrymandering, living in a state where the culture war drums beat incessantly.

If we keep stumbling down the censorship path, classics like Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” will soon be on the chopping block. Like the star-crossed lovers, book banners will always lose in the end, but until we deal with real threats to students, we will continue mourning the loss of Utah children to violent death — guns remain the number one killer of Utah children through suicide, domestic violence and family annihilation, murders and unintentional so-called “accidents.”

Utah kids deserve America’s promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our guns are cheating them, not our books.

Call on your elected officials to prioritize responsible life-saving gun legislation supported by Utahns over big-government book micromanagement pushed by a radical minority shouting, “I object.”

Do it now and as often as needed during the 2024 session.

Deborah Gatrell

Deborah Gatrell is a third generation U.S. Army veteran and a social studies teacher in the Granite School District. Her opinions are her own.

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