The Illinois House passed a bill Wednesday that would prohibit libraries from banning books or other material because of partisan or doctrinal pressure, prompting strong opposition from Republicans who called it an assault on local control.
House Bill 2789 is an initiative of Democratic Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, whose office oversees the Illinois State Library and administers several grant programs for public and school libraries as well as adult literacy programs throughout the state.
The bill would require that as a condition of qualifying for those grants in the future, libraries or library systems would have to adopt a written policy prohibiting the practice of banning books. Alternatively, they could adopt the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which includes a statement that “(m)aterials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
The bill came in response to a wave of high-profile controversies throughout the country, including at least one in Illinois. School districts and public libraries have come under pressure to remove certain material from their collections, often material dealing with issues involving race, sexuality and gender identity.
“Banning books is the sort of behavior that was once, for good reason, associated with the worst, most repressive and repugnant authoritarian regimes of the mid-20th century and before,” the bill’s lead sponsor Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, D-Naperville, said during debate on the House floor. “The fact that this is even up for discussion in America in the 21st century is disgusting. And yet, just last year in my district, that discussion was spurred on by a few radical parents and the Proud Boys hate group over a book called ‘Gender Queer.’”
That book is a memoir by Maia Kobabe about a nonbinary person grappling with issues of gender identity and sexuality as a teenager and young adult. According to the New York Times, it has been pulled from library shelves in dozens of school districts around the country.
One of the school districts that came under pressure to remove the book was Community High School District 99, in Downers Grove, in Stava-Murray’s district. According to a June 2022 Chicago Sun-Times story, the pressure was generated by a group of conservative parents and members of the Proud Boys, but students in the district pushed back and the board eventually voted unanimously to keep the book on the shelves.
“Students led a community-supported effort in my district to keep the book in the library,” Stava-Murray said. “But kids shouldn't have to be the heroes… Nobody is forcing you or your children to check out or purchase or read these books. If they are not consistent with your personal beliefs, don't read them.”
PEN American, in a report on book bans around the country, identified five enforced bans in the state between July 2021 and June 2022, including 3 bans of Gender Queer.
Some Republicans, however, argued that public libraries are governed by locally elected boards, and that those boards should have the authority to decide how best to serve their communities.
“I find this a complete assault on local control,” said Rep. Martin McLaughlin, R-Barrington Hills. “… These people volunteer as nonpartisan elected local officials, and for the state to tell a local library board, ‘listen to the professionals; follow the professionals’ – I don't understand why we have local elections anymore if a bill like this passes.”
Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville, said that he used to serve on his local library board and when his own children visit the library, they are accompanied by a parent. But he said that is not necessarily the case when they are at school using the school library.
“I am not for banning books at all,” he said. “I am for age-appropriate materials. And so, if a parent wants their kid to have those age-appropriate materials, they can certainly get them for them. I don't think that a librarian is the end-all, be-all decision maker in the state of Illinois on what books should be given to a child.”
Stava-Murray, however, rejected those arguments, saying the bill would only add another condition onto the rules to qualify for grants administered by the secretary of state. Last year, the office awarded more than 1,600 grants totaling more than $62 million, including a $4,300 grant to Downers Grove Community High School District 99.
“In terms of the argument about local control, I find that disgusting. Local Control has long been a dog whistle for allowing statewide or nationwide racist or bigoted policies to persist,” she said, eliciting loud boos from the Republican side of the aisle. “Today, I just strongly urge my colleagues to do the right thing and make sure that access to books is not infringed upon in our state.”
The bill passed the House 69-39 with all of the no votes coming from Republicans. Three Democrats and one Republican were recorded as present but not voting. The bill next goes to the Senate for consideration.
“Public and school libraries are facing unprecedented censorship of books and resources, not just in Illinois but throughout the nation,” Giannoulias said in a statement after the vote. “This important first-in-the-nation legislation combats book banning and upholds freedom of speech, which America has always stood for. I applaud the Illinois House of Representatives for passing this important measure and encourage the State Senate to do the same.”