Wisconsin Considers Prosecuting Teachers and Librarians for ‘Obscene’ Books

A Republican-backed proposal would remove protections against prosecution for teachers and librarians who give certain books to students.

This is a photo of someone picking a book from a library shelf.

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One day, teachers and library staff across Wisconsin may find that they could be prosecuted for allowing K-12 students to view certain books or other materials. A new Republican legislative proposal to penalize educators for exposing children to obscene materials comes out of a wider effort to restrict what K-12 students can see or read. The bill had its day Dec. 5 before the Republican-led Assembly Committee on Education. AB-308  would remove protections for school and library staff against being prosecuted for providing “obscene” materials to minors. If passed, the bill would create a new class of felons —  teachers and library staff who are found to have provided students with inappropriate books or other media.

One day after the Assembly education committee hearing on the bill, Dr. Jill Underly, the state superintendent of public instruction, expressed concern about increased attacks on libraries and schools on X, formerly known as Twitter. “At this moment in our history, we need spaces to engage with new ideas and our history,” Underly wrote in a Dec. 6 post. “We need it in the face of hate and increased threats and attempts at silencing. Libraries are a bastion of freedom of thought, expression, and creativity.”

Jill Underly, candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction (photo courtesy of Underly)
Jill Underly, State Superintendent of Public Instruction (Underly)

Underly also shared video of statements she made at a late November press conference, streamed by WisconsinEye. In the video, Underly said that school libraries are welcoming, exciting places where children can learn and explore new ideas and stories. “When we see the current increases in attempts at censorship and attacks of disinformation against school libraries, we should be very, very worried,” Underly said. To Underly, “censorship is suppression,” and goes against the spirit of education. “Disinformation threatens the existence of inclusive spaces because it weaponizes the fact that they welcome all students as their authentic selves,” said Underly.

Throughout the hearing, however, Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha) and Sen. Andre Jacque (R-DePere) pushed back against concerns about the bills. “I’m grateful for the public hearing as there are many who suggest that there are no obscene materials in our schools and that this bill is just about book bans and political agendas,” said Allen in testimony to the committee. “As you’ll hear today from other testifiers, there are many parents and educators who have become concerned at how students can encounter sexually explicit material at school.”

Sen. Andre Jacque (left) and Rep. Scott Allen (right) testify before the committee. (Screenshot | Isiah Holmes)
Sen. Andre Jacque (left) and Rep. Scott Allen (right) testify before the committee. (Screenshot/Isiah Holmes)

Current law exempts librarians and teachers from being prosecuted under the state’s obscene materials laws in the interest of allowing for a free flow of literary and educational materials. Allen described “obscene material” as any writing, picture, film or recording which could cause “immoderate or unwholesome desires,” depicts sexual conduct in an offensive way, or lacks serious literary, artistic, political, educational or scientific value. “When we look at this definition, I think all of us, regardless of political persuasions, would agree that material showing sexual content in a provocative way should not be something that we give to 12-year-olds,” said Allen. “If any of us chose to distribute obscene material to a minor, we would be subject to felony charges. Rightly so.” Allen added. “Should we not hold those who work with minors to the same level of responsibility as any other Wisconsinite?”

Both Allen and Jacque stressed that the bill isn’t about banning books. “It’s a simple, commonsense acknowledgment that all books and materials may not be appropriate for all kids of all age groups, particularly those with sexually explicit and perverse content,” said Jacque. “This is hardly an extreme or radical expectation.” Jacque, like committee vice-chair Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) who went before a Senate committee with another library-related bill last week, said that virtual learning after the pandemic caused parents to pay closer attention to what their children had access to in school. Some turned their outrage into organizing, creating lists of books largely about LGBTQ issues, race  and social justice issues to remove or restrict in schools. Allen and Jacque said some constituents told them prosecuting school and library staff for providing certain materials to students was a step in the right direction.

In emails obtained by Wisconsin Examiner last year, parents compiled a list of books they viewed as inappropriate for young students, and encouraged Republican lawmakers to look into removing them. Some parents felt the books were sexually obscene, others felt that their kids were being taught to “hate cops and hate their white skin in the classrooms at our elementary schools.” Prosecuting teachers and library staff for providing such books to students was recommended by constituents in many of these early emails. Allen was among Republican lawmakers who’d received those early conversations regarding prosecution of school and library staff.

Earlier this year, Allen and Jacque floated co-sponsorship memos for legislation to remove protections for school staff and prohibit school districts from using funds to purchase any materials found to be obscene. In the Dec. 5 hearing, the two lawmakers continued that effort. Other people speaking in favor of the bill included representatives of groups including one called Gays Against Groomers as well as Wisconsin Family Action. A member of Gays Against Groomers testified wearing an American flag patterned bandana, and stated that books like Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe are “pedophile books.” Testimony from Moms for Liberty was also provided to the committee. People speaking in favor of the bill argued that they wanted to protect the innocence of young children, particularly from teachers who have “an agenda.”

Rep. William Penterman (R-Columbus). (Screenshot | WisconsinEye)
Rep. William Penterman (R-Columbus). (Screenshot/WisconsinEye)

Hearing materials provided to the committee included pages and excerpts of books which parents said they  found in school districts across Wisconsin. Some of the pages included sexual dialogue or situations between characters or images of sexual acts. “The Infinite Moment of Us” by Lauren Myracle, “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel, and “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood were among the books identified for having violence, descriptions of self-harm, “alternate gender ideologies,” “controversial religious commentary,” and “profanity.” Although no one spoke against the bill in person, 10 groups registered against the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin, multiple associations representing school district administrators, school nurses, school business officials, and librarians. Several members of the committee chimed in on the bill in testimony. Rep. William Penterman (R-Columbus) said he had concerns “that the bill doesn’t go far enough.” Penterman felt the bill couldn’t be applied widely enough to different communities and situations. Penterman said that in his own city, “a naked bike ride wouldn’t fly, but in other places that might be seen as totally acceptable,” said Penterman.

Other Republican members harked back to a remembered golden era of modesty. Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) said there’s a battle between school librarians “who say we’re licensed, we’re the experts, we decide what meets the burden of ‘scandalizes’.” He added that, “for 50 years parents trusted the schools, the teachers, and then all of a sudden this movement after COVID [challenged those assumptions].”

“We’ve gone 50 years of letting teachers decide what is best for our kids on these sensitive topics,” Wichgers added. “And now the parents saw what the sensitive topics have become, compared to when their first set of kids went through five, 10, 15 years ago. When they were in school 30, 40 years ago, and they’re saying how did we get here so quickly? And can we go back to Elvis Presley shaking his leg and singing as a baseline of what is scandal? And can we go back to that? Because I think that we’ve gone too far.”

Democratic members of the committee questioned various aspects of the bills. Rep. Dave Considine (D-Baraboo) said the bill would result in the state policing what different communities do, despite what those communities may want. Not all communities find the same issues, topics, or lifestyles obscene or perverse, he added. Allen said that adults can have discussions about which materials are valuable and appropriate for different age groups. He pushed back against the idea that there should be a variety of different standards. “There should be no one exempt from our obscene statutes, or obscene materials law,” said Allen. Speaking of elementary school teachers, and  Allen said, “if there’s one bad apple in the bunch it can do a significant amount of damage.”

Rep. Kristina Shelton (Screenshot/ WisconsinEye)
Rep. Kristina Shelton (Screenshot/ WisconsinEye)

Allen and Jacque said that teachers and librarians don’t have to worry about overzealous enforcement, since a case for prosecution would need to be brought to the district attorney, and then the attorney general, before any criminal action was taken.

Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay) questioned whether Allen and others had actually read school library policies. In many cases across the state as books have become more controversial, school districts have removed books or moved them up in grade levels away from younger students. Andraca pointed out that in those cases the policies worked. In some cases, the policies were specifically requested by the same parents pushing to restrict what books students could access. Allen argued that no one should be exempted from responsibility just because of their profession. “Does that apply to law enforcement then? Shelton asked, noting that police have qualified immunity and a host of other protections and privileges under the law. “I don’t believe that law enforcement is exempt from the obscene materials statute,” Allen responded.

At one point, legislative counsel clarified that the bill could not make teachers criminally liable for what a district has told them or allowed them to instruct. Rep. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay) asked if the bills had been crafted in cooperation with other clear efforts across the state to remove books, and expose teachers to liability. Jacque rejected the suggestion, and was supported by committee chair Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), who interjected that many bills are made with inspiration from other states and made light of any suggestion of a “big conspiracy.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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