What happens to librarians providing ‘obscene’ books? For some, jail time

A new analysis from The Washington Post looks at several states' newly enacted laws that seek to severely punish school librarians who provide books deemed "harmful" to minors.

In recent months, school libraries have become the center of the commonly labeled “culture wars” as parental rights groups and lawmakers continue revising the criteria of what books are deemed “appropriate” for school-aged children. Not only do educators receive pushback for using such materials in their classrooms, but recently enacted laws in several states ensure that librarians face punishment at the highest level for providing such content: imprisonment.

This week, the anti-censorship nonprofit PEN America and Penguin Random House sued the Escambia County School District in Florida and its school board for their “unconstitutional” decision to remove LGBTQ-themed books from its school libraries earlier this year. The lawsuit also comes at a time when the Florida Department of Education rejects social studies textbooks that don’t align with state standards, including material ranging from civics to financial literacy to the Holocaust, WPTV reports.

The controversy surrounding what is and isn’t appropriate for students to read has spiked over the past few years, and there are no signs of it slowing down. An April report from the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom revealed that the number of reported challenges to books doubled in 2022 totaling 2,571 censors, most of which contained LGBTQ or sexually explicit content.

Amid these censors come changes to legislation in several states, some of which could leave school librarians facing years of imprisonment if they’re not careful.

According to a new analysis by The Washington Post, at least seven states—although Idaho and North Dakota vetoed such legislation—have passed such laws in the last two years that include punishments such as tens of thousands of dollars in fines and years of jail time for exposing children to “harmful” books. All but one of the laws directly target schools, in addition to staff members of public libraries and book vendors.

States that have successfully enacted obscenity laws include Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

For instance, both librarians and teachers in Arkansas are subject to up to six years—or a $10,000 fine—if they provide what is considered to be obscene material, according to a newly enacted law that takes effect Aug. 1.

And while every state has maintained some sort of obscenity law, the vast majority have ensured schools, public libraries and museums receive exemptions, according to a report from EveryLibrary, the nation’s first and only political action committee for libraries. However, some lawmakers are getting past this barrier by “criminalizing libraries.”

“It will make sure the only literature students are exposed to fits into a narrow scope of what some people want the world to look like,” Keith Gambill, president of the Indiana teachers union, told The Washington Post. “This is my 37th year in education. I’ve never seen anything like this… We are entering a very frightening period.”

As for the remainder of the school year and beyond, advocacy groups anticipate further challenges to school libraries, including EveryLibrary.

“Statutes like these create a hostile climate for learning and libraries,” their January report reads. “In their introduction, they provide fuel for anti-access and moral crusaders to rally supporters and generate attention. If they pass, public library workers, educators, teachers and school staff, college and university faculty and staff, and museum professionals will be exposed to new and pernicious workplace liabilities.”

Micah Ward
Micah Wardhttps://districtadministration.com
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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