Opinion: Public education is ground zero in Utah’s culture wars

Utah’s legislative culture warriors are victorious again on the book-banning front.

Public education remains a major battleground in Utah’s culture wars. In a February Salt Lake Tribune op-ed, five former superintendents of Utah school districts noted: “Public and higher education institutions cannot achieve desired outcomes if the governor and legislators persist in limiting diversity of opinions, canceling DEI programs and banning books.” They also criticized the state legislature’s majority for pursuing their negative agenda on the basis of hearsay unsupported by evidence and research. During the 2024 legislative session, Utah’s culture warriors pressed their advantage on all three fronts identified by the educators.

On March 18, Utah’s legislative culture warriors scored a major victory on the book-banning front: Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB29 into law. This legislation empowers 10% of Utah school districts and charter schools to remove books from public school libraries statewide. Books determined by this minority to have “objective sensitive material or subjective sensitive material” — pornographic or indecent content devoid of “literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors” — can now be readily banned throughout the state.

HB374 which became law in March 2022, had already enabled citizens to demand a book be reviewed for “sensitive material.” Predictable consequences followed. By the fall semester, Utah ranked fourth highest in the nation for number of banned books. The Davis School District was compelled to research 129 challenges and removed 38 books from the district system. In the Granite School District, six individuals challenged access to 94 books. The recently enacted HB29 provides small numbers of challengers with a much amplified bullhorn.

All parents have the right to morally and socially educate their children — and the duty to do so. All parents have the right to protect their own children from what they judge to be age-inappropriate books and pornographic or otherwise offensive material. Within our pluralistic and democratic republic, however, should an activist minority of parents have the right to deprive children of other parents from having access to books?

Banning books is no substitute for parental guidance. Informed, honest and respectful exchanges between children and parents concerning what children are reading and accessing online is a far superior form of moral and social education.

Shielding high school students from what parents judge to be inappropriate material is all but impossible. Most teenagers have access to computers. Google the topic “books banned in Utah schools.” Among the initial links will be: “52 Books Banned From Alpine School District (UT).”

The enterprising bookseller — City Books, Pittsburg — that operates this site has posted all 52 covers of the school district’s banned books. A brief synopsis of each book is available. For example: When you click on the pictured cover of book number 52, “A Lesson in Vengeance,” you will learn the novel is: “A dark, twisty thriller about a centuries-old, ivy-covered boarding school haunted by its history of witchcraft and two girls dangerously close to digging up the past [sic].”

The site offers free shipping and reduced prices on each of the 52 books. Would a book seller maintain such a site and offer such bargains if those practices were not profitable?

If a book is known to be banned, the banning may backfire. High school students are curious. Commonsense and at least one study indicate the readership of books, once they are known to be banned, will likely increase. City Books is but one seller that provides curious and sometimes rebellious teenagers with ready access to such forbidden fruit.

Banning books increases mistrust among students, parents, teachers, librarians, educational administrators and public officials. If you are concerned about what your children may be reading, be a loving parent. Listen to them, follow their interests, and engage them in discussions concerning your own beliefs and values.

Andrew Bjelland

Andrew Bjelland, PhD, professor emeritus of philosophy at Seattle University, taught political philosophy, jurisprudence, medical ethics and logic. He held the Pigott-McCone Chair in Humanities. He resides in Salt Lake City.

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