Capitol Comments: Banning your right to challenge obscene books in school libraries

Published 8:45 pm Friday, March 1, 2024

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Capitol Comments by Peggy Bennett

Is it appropriate for society to protect children from things like obscenity, pornography and age-inappropriate extreme content and views? Should children be protected from this explicit material while in school?

Peggy Bennett

This week, in the House Education Policy Committee, members were introduced to the governor’s new 2024 education policy bill. This bill contains many different legislative proposals. One provision in the bill is titled, “Book Banning Prohibited.”

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“We don’t ban books in Minnesota,” our governor has stated. That has a handy ring to it. Who wouldn’t like that slogan? Given we live in a country with the constitutional right of free speech, this sounds reasonable, right?

As a former elementary school teacher of 33 years, I treasure children. They are one of the greatest reasons I chose to seek this office. Children are precious, and they are our future. I do not want to see them harmed.

An important part of my job is to research and dig into the details of proposed laws so we can understand the real ramifications. That’s what I’ve done for this provision. What I have found is highly concerning.

There are two basic parts to this proposed legislation.

First, it states that no school board or other governing body can “ban, remove or otherwise restrict access to a book or other material based on the viewpoint, content, message, idea or opinion conveyed.” This language covers school libraries or any library that receives state funding. It could even include a book corner in a classroom.

Secondly, the law dictates that only one person, a “qualified librarian,” gets to decide what books are selected or removed from a school library, and any removal must adhere to the strict criteria above. This leaves parents, teachers, administrators and school boards totally out of the picture.

This is another one-size-fits-all government mandate that strips power from local school boards, teachers, administrators and parents and puts it into the hands of state bureaucrats.

School districts currently have a process, developed by locally elected school boards, for how to remove books deemed age inappropriate from school libraries. Under this bill, that local process will disappear.

What if the person who orders books for a school has a personal or political agenda? What if he or she innocently chooses a recommended award-winning book without reading it only to find later that it contains obscene or pornographic material?

Much of the language in this bill is conflicting and some unclear. It is quite possible that literature which would not survive the state-mandated porn filter for school technology would not be able to be challenged under this law.

What is clear is that once a book is in a school library it would most likely be impossible to remove. This would include literature containing obscene or pornographic material, or extreme opinions such as calling for the extermination of Israel. It also appears that the bill would essentially end age-appropriate sections in libraries. What is good for a 12th grader will be good for a kindergartener.

Good luck to parents who want to challenge materials they deem inappropriate for their child. While one portion of Minnesota law allows parents to challenge curriculum or assignments for their child, this proposed law would make it impossible for school boards, teachers, or administrators to respond to that challenge. “Sorry, but the state says we must keep this in our school libraries and classrooms.”

Using the term “book ban” in this way makes a mockery of what true book bans are. Simply making a book unavailable in a school library is not a book ban.

This conflates the correct societal function of protecting children from age-inappropriate materials in schools with images such as Nazi Germany’s criminalization of literature or North Korea where one can be imprisoned for simply owning a Bible.

Since when is protecting children from explicit material while in school a bad thing? As a society, we understand that some things are not appropriate for children — and that includes some books. We have warnings on music, television, video games, movies, etc. We have laws against children’s exposure to obscenity, pornography and indecent exposure. This is because we understand that the developing brains of children are vulnerable and easily manipulated.

Ironically, while we have some in our state calling for “no book bans” in schools, half of Minnesota students cannot read at grade level. The sad reality is that every book is “banned” for a child who is unable to read.

The filtering of age-inappropriate school materials is an appropriate function of society. For schools, this decision belongs at the local level with locally elected school board members, parents, teachers, librarians and administrators. This government mandated take-over of local control does not belong in Minnesota.

Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, is the District 23A representative.