Bill aimed at deterring library book bans heads to Gov. J.B. Pritzker after party-line vote in Senate

Chicago Tribune – May 3, 2023

Legislation that would cut off state grants to public and school libraries if they ban books for “partisan or doctrinal” reasons was passed by the Illinois Senate on Wednesday and now heads to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk for approval.

The Democratic-controlled Senate approved the measure in a 39-19 party-line vote taken as debates over book banning have amplified partisan divides nationwide and provoked intense debates over censorship, school curricula and how much say parents should have over what titles are on library shelves.

The legislation, previously passed by the state House, requires libraries to follow the guidelines of the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which holds, among other things, that “materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” Alternatively, libraries could develop a written policy to “prohibit the practice of banning specific books or resources,” according to the bill.

The measure was initiated by Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias who, as the state librarian, would block public libraries from getting grants through his office if they ban books under the measure. It would go into effect in January if Pritzker signs it.

“Opponents of this legislation say they’re not out to ban books. But when individuals demand that certain books should be removed from school and public libraries, that’s a distinction without a difference,” Giannoulias, formerly a member of the Chicago Public Library board, said during a news conference after the Senate vote. “Just because books aren’t burned in a local town square doesn’t make restricting public access to them any more acceptable.”

Republicans have argued that some titles that contain pornography or obscene imagery need to be out of the reach of children.

Republicans have also expressed concerns that the measure would take away local control from school and library boards over what books are appropriate for their collections.

Giannoulias, though, has said the legislation would only affect libraries that ban existing titles from their shelves and wouldn’t interfere with a school or library board’s selection process for books.

During the Senate floor debate, Republican state Sen. Jason Plummer, of Edwardsville, asked why the bill was relying on the standards of the American Library Association, saying that he spoke with a library board member who said they “never heard of the organization,” which has been around for about 150 years.

“Yet again, we find ourselves in this position in the Illinois state Senate where the majority is trampling on the minority and pushing an ideology on Illinois citizens, regardless of where they live, regardless of what they believe, simply by stripping away local control and taking power away from local elected officials,” Plummer said.

Deputy Republican Leader Sue Rezin, of Morris, echoed those concerns.

“The conversation has been based around book bans. This bill is about taking local control from your elected officials who are elected locally to decide for their libraries what’s best for their libraries,” said Rezin, a Republican from Morris. “Southern Illinois may be different than the suburbs. The suburbs may be different than Chicago.”

The bill’s main Senate sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines, pointed out that libraries would have the option to come up with their own policy against book banning if they didn’t want to follow the library association’s bill of rights, but her argument failed to assuage opponents.

“This is just a layer of bureaucracy and a threat to these local districts ... of taking away their funding that they desperately need,” GOP state Sen. Jil Tracy of Quincy said. “I think this is an overreach of power.”

State Sen. Mike Simmons, a Chicago Democrat, said that if the bill fails to become law, it could send a message that discriminating against marginalized groups like the LGBTQ community is acceptable.

“What this discussion is really about is, are we as a state going to allow localities and library systems to erase entire communities? That is what this debate is all about. That is what this issue has been about all around the country and that is what the issue will be if we don’t pass this legislation,” said Simmons, who became the legislature’s first openly gay state senator in 2021.

Murphy argued that the bill preserves the public’s right to be educated and exposed to new ideas.

“The way you become educated is you read,” she said. “But we have to allow them to become educated, particularly in this environment where people want to skew history, and rewrite history. We need to be able to study all forms of history, all information.”

Illinois has not seen as many cases of book bans or attempted bans as states that lean Republican, according to research from PEN America, a New York-based literary advocacy group. But, citing figures from the Chicago-based American Library Association, Giannoulias’ office said there were 67 attempts to ban books in Illinois in 2022, up from 41 the year before.

During the last fiscal year, the secretary of state’s office under Jesse White awarded 1,631 grants to Illinois libraries totaling more than $62 million. By June 30, the end of fiscal year 2023, the secretary of state’s office has estimated that it will have awarded more than 1,400 grants totaling close to $56 million.