Senators debate ban on ‘inappropriate’ library materials for minors

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.

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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.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.

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25 thoughts on “Senators debate ban on ‘inappropriate’ library materials for minors

    1. Because most of Indiana is afflicted by a plague … their kids get educated and realize there’s more to the world, so they head to the big cities in Indiana (or elsewhere) for work and to live.

      So maybe if kids aren’t educated and don’t dream big, they’re stay where they are.

      At least that’s my theory.

    2. Ah yes, the old “if they don’t agree with us, it’s because they’re too stupid” canard.

      Southern whites in the 1960s believed themselves to be so unquestionably morally, culturally, and intellectually superior to “them” that they went out of their way to deprive “them” of the right to assemble, to keep them from running potentially competitive businesses, and to inhibit their ability to vote. Gosh, it was the architecture of one political party that prompted or enabled white southerners to think and behave this way.

      Almost as hilarious as Joe B’s dogged insistence that “getting “educated” means something in this day and age. Do you really think the insanity is consigned to a few goofy schools like Evergreen State and Oberlin? They’re having mini-struggle sessions at places like IU and OSU. Highly “educated” big cities are losing population. They can’t get out fast enough.

      Gee whiz, them big city folk, ain’t they so smart?!! I mean, Chy-cago has them tall buildings and stuff and all those fancy people. The elect mayors who don’t look just like me–ain’t that crazy! I wish I could get my cowlick patted down so I could be more like them!

    3. The plague of elitism will destroy a democracy far worse than any blue collar maga-chud or evangelical Xtian not wanting books that Tipper Gore would have blushed at being allowed in children’s libraries. Books that parents get in trouble for reading out loud at school boards, yet they’re still just fine in the kids’ libraries. Ever remember when we had basic standards for behavior? You know, like waaay back in 2013? Hey, but at least you’ll feel comfortable knowing outbreaks of typhoid and shigellosis (already fairly common on the enlightened west coast) will become commonplace as society continues to slip to oblivion because of the diminution of basic standards. And you can still blame those stupid bible-beating hayseeds. Knowing is half the battle!

    4. Your assertion that big cities are losing population in Indiana is, to be charitable, nonsense and not supported by the data in any sense of the word.

      Running around changing laws when you can’t produce one example on Indiana and relying on the word of some special interest group … is nonsense. Especially when Indiana has made it quite easy for people to vote with their feet and head to another school that has a more acceptable library.

      Produce the list of schools and the list of books. Then let’s chat about action required. Don’t freak out about Portland Oregon every five minutes.

  1. I’d ban the bible – full of plagues, violence and adultery. More wars because of it over the centuries than any other book. It’s kinda woke in places, too – yep, gotta go…..

  2. Sadly this is reminiscent of the KKK in Indiana in the 1920s.

    This absurd legislation does, in fact, put control of what ALL children read in the hands of those who lack knowledge, training and experience. Banning books is not what should exist in a democracy. Book banning does exist in a dictatorship or autocracy seeking to control certain information. In our case, those suggesting or attempting to pass this legislation do so by implying they are “protecting children”. Spend some time in recess or on the bus with these kids and you’ll find more of your alleged “immoral” information being shared there than in any library….and where does that come from? Our homes. THAT is where teaching one’s moral values should prevail. Not in a library.

    Librarians are highly trained, hardworking individuals who I will trust with providing age appropriate material to my grandchildren. This continues the slippery slope of legislating a certain morality that wants to pit my moral values and integrity against theirs.
    Wrong on all fronts.

    1. Or maybe, just maybe, the party that has 85-90% control of the school systems and embodies the spirit of teachers’ unions is the one responsible for introducing all of this nonsense. Do we really think books that describe sex in graphic detail were available to 10-year-olds as recently as the mid 2000s? If a teacher showed an R-rated movie as recently as the mid 2000s they would have been fired.

      It’s almost like you have complete amnesia of how, when kids get library cards, it prevents them from checking out R-rated or NC-17 rated movies. Given that I would get banned from this site if I copy/pasted the content from some of these books, why is it okay for them to read them but not okay to have screenings of “The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover” in 10th grade English class. I mean, it’s an art film….

      Librarians are just like any other profession–like teachers and police. There are good ones and ones that are blinded by ideology and totally corrupt. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is a good book, but that doesn’t mean you need to teach it to minors.

      John, why are you so eager to groom children? Why is that such an ironclad moral value for you? It’s a rhetorical question. Don’t worry.

    2. Lauren, legislators have been unable to produce a simple list of the guilty schools in Indiana and the guilty books.

      If this was a court case, it would have been dismissed for a lack of evidence. Unfortunately it appears the standard to pass legislation is far lower.

  3. This is absolutely rediculious for state legislature to be focusing on.
    Let local communities and libraries decide for themselves what
    is appropriate or not.

    I’m lean with the R’s but the legislation that they have been
    concerning themselves with lately is utterly rediculous and harmful.

    Stop trying to legislate moral values!!!!!

    The R’s are doing the very thing that they were complaining about the
    Woke left of doing.
    It’s hurting our efforts to recruit businesses and economic development to

    To our state legislature! Stay away from social values issues and concentrate
    on economic development

  4. Lawmakers being unable to name the guilty schools on demand speaks to how deeply unserious they are. It’s legislating to make random Facebook groups happy so you don’t get primary’d.

  5. They’re literally trying to erase history?! They said that out loud! They literally want to erase Japanese Internment and Lynching from history books?

    These people aren’t fit to manage the puppy mills they so love.

  6. Once again, the party who champions restricting government and limiting regulation proposing a government solution via more regulation. Felony charges for educators over access to books at a time when the teaching profession is woefully short and underpaid. Another solution looking for a problem phony crusade for morons with nihilistic intent, with head in the sand response to unintended consequences. Meanwhile Indiana has the third highest maternal mortality rate, the eighth highest fetal mortality rate, is the highest toxic pollution emitter per square mile and has the ninth highest per capita cancer death rate – all problems these unserious “leaders” aren’t working on at all. You can’t make it up – almost as if they’re bent on our self-destruction.

    1. I mean, you’re welcome to move to a paradise like Chicago. Lori won’t be mayor much longer so I’m sure it’ll switch right back to the paradise it has long been. They love to look down on hoosiers for what hicks they are and they don’t think any more highly of people in Indy. Go for it, Tim!

  7. I would venture to say our kids are harmed far more by the almost daily news of mass shootings of children then by any book in a reputable library. But hey….our legistators have their priorities don’t they.

  8. It’s so frustrating that people who actually have children and pay taxes that fund the schools and pay the teachers’ salaries have the audacity to question how some things get to be part of the curriculum.

    Don’t these busybody parents understand that teachers and librarians often have masters degrees and are experts in their field? We should always trust experts and just let them dictate the direction of public discourse, because they’re well-trained and smarter. That’s how you preserve democracy.

    I mean, a school library should be a facsimile of the Library of Congress. Everything should be allowed–no screening whatsoever. If a teacher wants to show “Wakanda Forever” in math class for DEI benchmarks, go for it. Any rejection of any book whatsoever, whether due to obscenity or its semblance to “Mein Kampf” or because it’s simply not relevant to kids’ academic learning (like a 1975 Marvel Comic), they ALL should be in schools, and saying “no” is banning. LOL.

    Then where does that leave the woke school districts around Seattle that banned “To Kill A Mockingbird”? The answer: nowhere. It’s their right. If the school board thinks it’s inappropriate and the parents agree, then remove it from the curriculum.

    1. The approved curriculum in the state of Indiana is laid out by the state of Indiana by the Department of Education.

      It’s been controlled by Republicans since 1973, save a four year stretch from 2013-2017 when voters elected Glenda Ritz. In response to her election, legislators took away much of her power, then made it an appointed office when they found even the Republican replacement for Ritz wa not suitably compliant to their desires in how schools are run in this state.

      So I guess you can continue to blame everyone but state legislators but the reality is that a retired florist has been the most influential person in Indiana when it comes to education policy, and has been the last decade.

    2. Lauren B. I love ( not really ) how you cherry pick facts and want to hold up a “woke school district around Seattle” (because you want to identify the Seattle area as “woke” thereby making areas around it “woke”). Not sure where you live but maybe if you encase yourself in a lead container that will keep the seepage of disgusting “woke” thinking from permeating your brain. The school district in question did not say the book couldn’t be in the library.
      It was removed from “required reading” but the district still permits any “woke” teacher from using it in their classroom.

      Sadly, you seem to imply that by allowing any parent to make an effort to restrict any book they deem inappropriate to any child is perfectly acceptable and on whatever moral ground that effort might be based.

      It amazes me that your level of sarcasm and attempted analogies prove nothing other than a hopeless, lighter-than-air argument for legalized literary censorship.

      Since you seem to be a voice for what recent polls suggest only 12% of the population favors (book banning) perhaps you/they are the ones who need to move. But with about 88% of the rest of the population not in favor, that may be difficult to achieve.

  9. So funny thinking that I’ve been atheist for 20+ years and am now watching the political wing I aligned with for so long behave like the intolerant Evangelicons of the 1980s, but ramped up on fentanyl. Did the Evangelicons doxx people like the wokies do now?

    If a book can be made available on your front doorstep within 72 hours from Amazon, as all of these books are, then it’s not banned. If you can’t wait that long, odds are good it’s available immediately from Barnes and Noble. Schools have a responsibility to screen for books that are inappropriate for small kids, and the parents have the right to voice what is appropriate…whether on the political left or right. But only one is gnashing teeth because the other dares to speak out. And book “banning” continues at the woke schools too. As is their right.

  10. So funny thinking that I’ve been atheist for 20+ years and am now watching the political wing I aligned with for so long behave like the intolerant Evangelicons of the 1980s, but ramped up on fentanyl. Did the Evangelicons doxx people like the wokies do now? Did they try to ruin people’s lives who objected to Bibles being taught in public schools. Having attended in the late 70s/early 80s, I can certainly say that the Bible was not taught in my conservative district, and it was not controversial that it was not taught.

    If a book can be made available on your front doorstep within 72 hours from Amazon, as all of these books are, then it’s not banned. If you can’t wait that long, odds are good it’s available immediately from Barnes and Noble. Schools have a responsibility to screen for books that are inappropriate for small kids, and the parents have the right to voice what is appropriate…whether on the political left or right. But only one is gnashing teeth because the other dares to speak out. And book “banning” continues at the woke schools too. As is their right.