Public Libraries: The New Frontier of Book Banning

By FOCUS, A Leonine Business

The Llano County Library System in Texas faces possible elimination after a federal judge ordered 12 banned books returned to the shelves on April 1. Seven residents sued Llano County in April 2022 over its book ban, noting that all the books contained LGBTQ+ and race-related themes, alleging their First and 14th amendment rights were violated, Newsweek reports. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pitman ruled for the reinstatement of the banned books within 24 hours and ordered their availability in the library system’s catalogue.

This is just one of several consequences playing out as book bans continue to rise throughout the country. According to PEN America, from July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022, 138 school districts in 32 states banned books. A parallel but connected movement has emerged targeting public libraries, with calls to ban books; efforts to intimidate, harass, or fire librarians; and attempts to suspend of defund entire libraries. Additionally, legislation that would restrict student access to materials deemed “obscene,” “harmful” or “explicit” as defined by the bills has spread simultaneously. Though sponsors state their intentions are to protect students, content concerning historically marginalized groups is indirectly targeted within much of the legislation. Some would remove the affirmative defense to prosecution for teachers and librarians for the distribution of “harmful materials” to minors.

Arkansas Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed SB 81/Act 372 into law on April 4, which creates the offence of furnishing a harmful item to a minor, including “obscene materials loaned by a library.” The act, which also allows parents to bring civil action against an individual suspected of distributing “obscene material” to their minor, took effect immediately. In Indiana, the House Education Committee heard hours of testimony on April 5 from school employees, librarians and others in opposition to an amendment proposed by Rep. Becky Cash, R-Zionsville, to SB 380 that could criminalize librarians for objectionable books, as reported by WFYI, an NPR affiliate.

Alternatively, some states have introduced bills that attempt to prohibit the practice of book banning. Illinois HB 2789, sponsored by Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, would encourage libraries in the state to promote and share resources, including digital resources, and would protect the ability of libraries to acquire materials without external limitations, to protect against attempts to ban, remove or restrict access to books and materials. Similar bill SB 1812, sponsored by Sen. Mike Simmons, D-Chicago, would prohibit book banning in a library, school or other publicly funded facility.

Last month alone saw legislation regarding the restriction of minors’ access to “obscene, harmful or explicit” material prefiled or introduced in: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. FOCUS will continue to monitor how book bans are playing out across state legislatures this session.