Public libraries in Illinois could be cut off from state funding if they remove books and other materials from their shelves for “partisan or doctrinal” reasons under a measure signed into law Monday by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
“Book bans are about censorship, marginalizing people, marginalizing ideas and facts,” Pritzker said before signing the legislation at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. “Regimes ban books, not democracies. Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, the Taliban’s Afghanistan. We refuse to let the vitriolic strain of white nationalism coursing through our country determine whose histories are told.”
The measure passed through the state House and Senate along party lines during the spring legislative session as debates over book banning have amplified partisan divides nationwide and provoked intense discussions about censorship, school curricula and how much say parents should have over what titles are on library shelves.
Democrats say book bans often discriminate against the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups, while Republicans have argued that some titles need to be out of the reach of children if they contain pornography or obscene imagery.
Democratic Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who is also the state librarian and who initiated the legislation, said the battles over censorship have made librarians and their workplaces targets.
“These radical attacks on our libraries have divided our communities and our librarians have been harassed, threatened and intimidated for simply doing their jobs,” said Giannoulias, whose office provides grants to the state’s public libraries. “Parents, and only parents, have the right and the responsibility to restrict their children’s, and only their children’s, access to library resources.”
During debate on the bill in the Democratic-controlled Illinois General Assembly, Republicans raised concerns that the measure would take away control from local governments, including library boards, over what books belong on shelves.
Democratic state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, of Naperville, who sponsored the bill in the House, said she found a local control argument made by a GOP House member “disgusting.”
“Local control has long been a dog whistle for allowing statewide or nationwide racist or bigoted policies to persist,” she said on the House floor, drawing groans and boos from Republicans.
Republicans also expressed concern over potentially harmful content. State Sen. Jil Tracy of Quincy asked how a library would be able to prevent pornographic materials like “Hustler” magazine from falling into the hands of underage readers.
Democrats responded by saying this bill only concerns books banned for partisan reasons and doesn’t change existing rules around managing adult or harmful content.
Giannoulias on Monday reiterated that the measure would not interfere with a library’s book selection process, but would only affect libraries that pull books from shelves for “partisan or doctrinal” reasons.
Tracie D. Hall, executive director of the Chicago-based American Library Association, said the law signed by Pritkzer is the first of its kind in the United States.
“I could not be prouder that the American Library Association … makes its home in a state that is first in the nation to create a law that stands up to censorship and calls it what it is: a threat to education … and a threat to our democracy,” Hall said.
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.
By signing the bill, Pritzker, widely seen as having presidential ambitions, again staked out his liberal credentials and offered a stark contrast to potential Republican rivals like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is vying for his party’s 2024 presidential nomination.
DeSantis has vowed to end “woke” ideology and has taken action to remove books from Florida schools he has found inappropriate. In his remarks Monday, Pritzker took a thinly veiled shot at DeSantis and like-minded governors.
“While certain hypocritical governors are banning books written by LGBTQ authors, but then claiming censorship when the media fact-checks them, here in Illinois we are showing the nation what it really looks like to stand up for liberty,” Pritzker said. “As simple as that.”