Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2024 Issue

Criminal Prosecution of Librarians and Withdrawal from the American Library Association is on the Legislative Agenda in Multiple States

Legislative attacks on libraries accelerated in 2023 and continued unabated in 2024 including proposed criminal penalties on librarians and moves to withdraw from the American Library Association.

American libraries continue to be a focus of the culture wars and debate over what should or should not be allowed on the shelves and who should select it has become increasingly loud and divisive. Multiple states have enacted or have legislation pending that would criminalize librarians who do not tow a shifting ideological line.

 

The attacks on libraries and their staff accelerated in 2023 and continued unabated in 2024. Tennessee, South Carolina, Iowa, Wisconsin, Georgia, Montana and numerous other states are on the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of jurisdictions with multiple draconian legislative proposals under consideration.

 

Making these legislative issues even more volatile are attacks on the ALA itself. The organization bills itself as “oldest, largest and most influential library association in the world.” It is the nation’s largest professional organization for libraries. Its fact sheet states it has “more than 50,000 members who are primarily librarians but also includes trustees, publishers and other library supporters.”

 

2024 Adverse Legislation Proposals widespread according to ALA

This year libraries continue to face an adverse legislative climate. According to the ALA website, “During the recent legislative sessions, state legislators introduced a range of measures that would have impaired the ability of libraries, library staff, and library boards to acquire and provide diverse materials, resources, and programming to their communities.

 

These bills have been introduced in the 2024 legislative sessions at unprecedented rates. (See the adverse legislation tracker)

 

Most concerning are bills that would remove long standing legal protections that shielded libraries and library workers from criminal prosecution for providing access to books and online resources to minors, or propose government mandated censorship of constitutionally protected books and materials by broadening the definition of materials deemed to be obscene or "harmful to minors."

 

Other legislation proposed direct censorship of diverse content, while some legislators and advocacy groups supported legislation that erodes the authority of local library boards and library staff… and bans discussion of topics and issues not favored by some politicians.

 

These bills should be seen as part of a larger campaign to adopt state laws that advance social and cultural priorities largely associated with conservative values and politics,” said the ALA website.

 

ALA lists seven specific areas of concern and ongoing dispute

 

1. Legislation to Eliminate Obscenity / Harmful to Minors Exemptions for Librarians and Educators: These measures propose amending state criminal obscenity laws in order to permit criminal prosecution of librarians and educators for distributing materials claimed to be obscene or “harmful to minors” …

 

Such bills would allow partisan advocacy groups and parents to sue or prosecute library workers when they make available books and other materials that present accurate medical information about sex or puberty, describe sexual behavior, or reflect the experiences of LGBTQ+ persons, based on the claim that … information about sex, sexuality, gender identity, or sexual orientation is legally obscene and inappropriate for minors.

 

2. Parental Rights Bills: These proposals seek to create and establish a “parents' bill of rights” that would affirm a parent's right to direct the education of his or her child and be informed about the child’s educational program. Proposed legislation would mandate transparency and an absolute right of parental participation in the operation of the schools.

 

As envisioned by their sponsors, such bills will allow parents to "push back" against educators by providing a means to sue educators and school districts when a parent believes that their right to control their student's health care or access to information has been infringed by the school or its employees.

 

3. Mandatory Database and Electronic Resource Regulation and Filtering: These bills would directly regulate or censor the content of public school and public library online research databases and content platforms by requiring the use of filtering tools or by allowing contracting agencies to impose financial penalties when it is alleged that the research database or platform contains allegedly pornographic materials. ...The proposed legislation often targets vendors.

 

The ALA goes on to say, “While statewide legislation to ban these resources from schools and libraries has not succeeded, both Utah and Texas have adopted laws or regulations that allow state educational authorities to impose severe financial and legal penalties on online content providers if a minor uses the database or platform and accesses materials a parent believes to be pornographic or harmful to minors.”

 

4. Mandatory Online Device Filtering (“Human Trafficking Prevention Act,” or HTPA): Legislation proposed by a filtering software provider and a number of anti-pornography organizations requires manufacturers to install filters on all internet capable devices before sale to the public.

 

Under the proposed bills, the installed filters cannot be disabled unless requested by adult users who identify themselves to a regulating authority, pay a per-device fee for disabling and agree to receive information on harms of pornography. No version yet introduced provides any exceptions for institutional sales of internet-capable devices to libraries or schools.

HTPA bills have been introduced in state legislatures for the past five years, but until last year have failed to move out of committee.

 

5. Content Censorship:Beginning in 2021, state legislators have sought to censor content available in schools and universities by proposing, and adopting, laws that prohibit K-12 schools and public universities from teaching, offering, or distributing certain content to their students, faculty, or staff.

 

6. "Critical Race Theory" or "Divisive Concepts" Content Bans: These bills prohibit public K-12 schools, public colleges and universities, and government agencies from teaching, advocating, acting upon, or promoting "divisive concepts."

 

As used in these bills, “divisive concepts” or “divisive acts” include concepts and framings associated with diversity training and resources that raise awareness of racism, sexism, systemic bias, and racial injustice.

 

The bills draw on language contained in an executive order issued by former President Trump in September 2020 that banned the use of “divisive concepts” in staff development programs offered to, or conducted by, government employees and federal contractors, on the grounds that such training was biased against white federal employees.

 

In 2021, conservative advocates began a campaign that sought to associate diversity training and any discussion or consideration of race, racism, Black American history, and related issues with "critical race theory," a rhetorical academic construct. Advocates of the ban label the consideration of race, racism or related topics as “anti-American” and “Marxist indoctrination,” alleging that discussion leads to discrimination against white students.

 

As a result, state legislators across the United States have introduced bills prohibiting any instruction, discussion, or consideration of racism, racial injustice, and related issues in schools and universities.

 

7. Content Bans on Social Justice & Gender Issues: While many bills target "divisive concepts" associated with a range of social justice issues related to race or sex, a number of state legislators proposed an outright ban on any textbooks, instructional materials or supplemental instructional materials - including library books - that “promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBTQ+) issues or lifestyles."

 

A fuller discussion of each of these seven points can be found at the ALA website by clicking the blue bar headed Types of Legislation

 

In the current polarized political climate, it’s not just the values of the ALA that are under attack, but the association itself. According to an early March report by NPR,”A growing number of states and local libraries are cutting ties with the nation's predominant library professional association, saying the ALA has become too radical.”

 

The NPR story refers to legislation pending in Georgia, but also notes that “about eight other states, including Montana, Missouri, Texas and South Carolina, have also made moves to disassociate from the ALA. Some local libraries have opted out themselves. But this bill, the first of its kind in the nation, would force all school and public libraries in Georgia to cut ties with the library association.”

 

What seems to have ignited this uproar is a social media post by the ALA’s 2023-2024 president, Emily Drabinski, who, according to NPR, “celebrated her election to a one-year term with a now-deleted social media post expressing excitement that the group would be led by someone like her, "a Marxist lesbian who believes that collective power is possible to build and can be wielded for a better world."

 

For her part,” the NPR report continued, “Drabinski offered a written statement claiming her scholarship was being mischaracterized. Though it's personally painful to see my identity attacked," she said. "I also recognize this moment is about more than one person, one person's politics or one person's sexual orientation. The fight we are witnessing now is fundamentally about whether our communities in America should be home to inclusive, welcoming libraries where all residents — regardless of means or identity — can access books selected by trained librarians."

 

The ALA says it has seen a decline in membership in recent years, but attributes that more to a post-pandemic economy than any politically motivated defections. And the group denies any bias, insisting the organization is not defined by any single person's ideology.

 

"We've had many different presidents with many different ranges of political beliefs, and they're entitled to their beliefs as much as the individual who doesn't like seeing an LGBTQ book on the shelf," says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

  

Anti-Diversity, Equity, Inclusion tracker

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