Indiana Senators Debate Ban on ‘Inappropriate’ Library Materials for Minors

Bill passes but goes further than obscene or pornographic books

What books should Hoosier kids be allowed to read in school? Who decides which texts are “inappropriate” for students? And what say should parents have about removing books from library shelves?

Those questions were at the heart of nearly two hours of debate in the Indiana Senate Tuesday as lawmakers weighed a bill that seeks to ban materials deemed “harmful to minors” in school libraries.

Senate Bill 12 ultimately advanced 37-12 to the House.

Language in the proposal, authored by Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, removes “educational purposes” as a reason that public schools and libraries could claim legal protection for sharing “harmful material” with underage students. That includes books and other materials deemed to be obscene, pornographic or violent.

The bill also carves out a new process for parents to request the removal of books they believe are “inappropriate” from school libraries.

Tomes said his book is about “parents, their children, and books — really, really, really bad books.” The senator said he wants to eradicate “raw pornography” from school libraries.

Although he did not give specific examples of such works in front of the chamber, titles on the senator’s desk included “This Book Is Gay,” a book by Juno Dawson, and “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human,” a graphic novel by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan.

Democrats and a handful of GOP lawmakers pushed back, arguing that the bill could lead to the removal of anything a parent deems to be unsuitable.

“What I’m concerned about is, will some people think that other things that would not be pornographic or obscene would be inappropriate?” said Republican Sen. Eric Bassler, of Washington.

“I think that if you look, throughout the history of the world, there have been all sorts of gruesome things we’ve seen, whether it’s pictures of victims of the Holocaust, or victims of slavery, or maybe the mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II,” he continued. “I’m just concerned that a parent might think that a picture … of African Americans hanging from a tree might not be appropriate.”

Which materials are “inappropriate?”

Current Indiana law already outlines criteria that has to be met for a book to be considered criminal.

Outlawed materials must, as a whole:

  • describe or represent, in any form, nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sado-masochistic abuse
  • appeal to the prurient interest in sex of minors
  • be patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable matter for or performance before minors
  • lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors

Tomes held that his bill will not ban literary classics like “The Great Gatsby,” “Catch 22,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “1984.” It also doesn’t apply to “children’s books, or even adult books about cultures or other parts of the world,” he said.

But Sen. Rodney Pol D-Chesterton, said Tomes’ bill will empower parents who have “a political ax to grind.” His fear is that conservative parents will swamp school boards with complaints about “progressive” books or works authored by “somebody that supports the opposing party” or a “cause that (they) don’t believe in.”

“Nobody in this chamber is probably going to agree as to the specific line for which inappropriate is,” Pol said. “And if none of us can probably agree on that, then there’s probably going to be a lot of consternation, disagreement throughout each community, through each school board, through each district throughout the entire state.”

Tomes said the parental complaint process outlined in his bill will referee whether parents have a “legitimate grievance or not.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the issue agreed they do not want to allow kids to access pornographic or “obscene” books. But even if those materials are removed from school libraries, Pol and others questioned what good the legislation would do to stop kids from accessing such content through other means, especially online.

“Telephones or cell phones, computers – well, that’s the parents’ responsibility. That’s the FCCs responsibility,” Tomes said. “We can’t do anything about it. But we can sure do something about it in schools that we have paid for, with our taxes, that educate our children.”

A “chilling effect” on school libraries

Under the proposal, a local prosecutor could decide to charge a K-12 school teacher, librarian or staff member for giving “harmful” material to minors, meaning the educator could not argue in court that the material has educational value.

They could still argue that the material has literary, artistic, political or scientific value as a whole, however.

If charged, educators could face a Level 6 felony, which carries a maximum penalty of 2.5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Colleges and public libraries could still use the defense against a charge of disseminating harmful material to minors, according to the bill.

“I hope it does have a chilling effect,” Tomes said, referring to school libraries that carry the materials he’s seeking to have removed. “I hope it’s enough of a chilling effect that they will come to their senses, and have it upon themselves to see to it that for the kids entrusted in their custody, they will do their best to protect their innocence.”

The measure would also require school libraries to publicly post lists of books in their collection and create a formal grievance process for parents to object to certain materials in circulation.

Those who testified in support of the bill earlier this month included some who claimed to be parents of school-aged children, as well as members of conservative groups like Purple for Parents and Moms for Liberty.

They argued that students should not have access to “raw” and “disgusting” works, pointing to school library books that deal with sex education, drug use, violence, sexual abuse and gender identity.

They maintained, too, that school boards do “nothing” when parents complain about specific titles.

Still, advocates for schools and libraries say schools already have processes in place for parents to bring local challenges to books they find inappropriate. Tomes’ bill requires local review committees to review parent challenges.

They further contend the issue goes beyond claims about pornography in libraries or legal defenses available in state statute.

More broadly, those opposed to the bill said the issue stems from “fundamental differences” in values and opinions over what material is “appropriate” for Hoosier youth.

They emphasized, too, that such penalties outlined in the bill would have a “chilling effect” on schools and lead to the removal — or “banning” — of books that are perceived as inappropriate or controversial to some parents, but not others.

Tomes has filed similar bills in years past to take away schools’ defense to the state’s “harmful materials” law. A similar proposal failed in the 2022 session after K-12 librarians and educators argued they would be unfairly criminalized.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: info@indianacapitalchronicle.com. Follow Indiana Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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