Illinois passes bill to defund school libraries that remove controversial books

My Stateline — May 3, 2023

Illinois could become the first state in the U.S. to withhold state funding from school libraries that remove controversial books, including those containing explicit descriptions of sexual encounters.

House Bill 2789 passed both the House and Senate and now heads to Gov. JB Pritzker to sign it into law.

According to Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who also serves as State Librarian, the bill was initiated after “the far-right nationalist group, the Proud Boys — targeted Illinois libraries, divided communities, and harassed librarians.”

Parent groups across the country have been pushing to have books that feature explicit LGBTQ sexual scenarios removed from school libraries. Nationwide, the Proud Boys group has adopted the effort as aligning with their movement. In November 2021, ten members of the organization attended a school board meeting in Downer’s Grove where parents were attempting to have the graphic novel “Gender Queer” removed from local high schools.

“The concept of banning books contradicts the very essence of what our country stands for,” said Giannoulias. “It also defies what education is all about: teaching our children to think for themselves.”

The American Library Association announced that Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” was the most “challenged” book of 2022, the second consecutive year it has topped the list.

Last year, the Harlem School District in Machesney Park banned “Gender Queer,” saying the graphic novel contains graphic illustrations of sexual acts, which some said are not appropriate for the age group, adding that if a student chooses to, they can get the book at the public library.

Illinois’ new law will punish libraries that remove the books by removing their access to state grants.

Last year, the Secretary of State’s office awarded 1,631 grants to Illinois libraries totaling more than $62 million.

Sen. Andrew Chesney (R-Freeport) responded to the bill’s passage, saying, “This is yet another example of extreme Democrats in the General Assembly taking rights away from parents and local communities and deciding what is best for people. This law, if signed by the Governor, installs a statewide doctrine that provides that all content will be equally available to minors and adults. Through its very nature, this legislation will subject minor children to inappropriate adult content.”

U.S. obscenity laws are very narrow, and few books have ever been deemed obscene. The definition of pornography is also subjective, according to supporters of the books.

“This isn’t about adults going to their library and viewing adult content,” Chesney said in a statement. “It’s about children having unfettered access to that same content, and that’s simply unacceptable.”

The ALA reported there were more than 1,200 complaints in 2022 involving more than 2,500 different books, the highest totals since the association began compiling complaints 20 years ago.

While the Illinois legislation appears poised at protecting books that deal with controversial issues such as sex and race, conservative groups point to a double standard in which stores, such as Amazon, remove books for sale that offer countering viewpoints.

Online retailer Amazon has received criticism for removing books such as “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement,” which highlight contradictions between “the media’s sunny depiction [of gender transition] and the often sad realities of gender-identity struggles.” Amazon said the book, which had been on sale for three years, fell under a broad guideline that restricts “content that we determine is hate speech, promotes the abuse or sexual exploitation of children, contains pornography, glorifies rape or pedophilia, advocates terrorism, or other material we deem inappropriate or offensive.”

Conservatives have also pointed out that publishers are censoring classic books by rewriting and changing the written text with revised editions.

Ian Fleming Publications announced it is rewriting classic James Bond novels after a review by “sensitivity readers,” and Roald Dahl books, such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” are being released in new versions that omit “offensive language,” such as describing one character as fat.

In 2021, six children’s books by famed children’s author Dr. Seuss were removed from publication due to “racist and insensitive imagery“.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s portrayals of Native Americans in her “Little House On the Prairie” novels have been faulted so often that the American Library Association removed her name in 2018 from a lifetime achievement award it gives out each year.