Illinois, Indiana on different pages in responding to efforts to ban library books

Dan Carden Mar 12, 2023 Updated Jul 5, 2023

Illinois, Indiana on different pages in responding to efforts to ban library books

The moral panic over the content of library books underway in parts of Indiana and many other Republican-led states is playing out quite differently just across the state line in Illinois.

Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, a Democrat who also serves as state librarian, is backing legislation that would declare the policy of Illinois is to ensure the freedom of libraries to acquire materials without external limitation, as well as to protect libraries from attempts to ban, remove or otherwise restrict access to books or other materials.

House Bill 2789 also would deny Illinois libraries access to $62 million in annual state library grants unless they adopt the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights, or a similar local statement, pledging library materials will not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

In a statement, Giannoulias said book banning undermines First Amendment rights, threatens individual freedoms and liberties, and prevents the public from accessing reading materials of their choice.

"This is an alarming phenomenon that’s occurring throughout the nation, including Illinois, which is designed to polarize and disrupt our communities," Giannoulias said. "This scourge of censorship has a chilling effect on our democracy. These efforts have nothing to do with books. Instead, they are about ideas that certain individuals disagree with and believe no one should think or be allowed to think."

Democratic Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker similarly condemned book banning and censorship last month in his annual "State of the State" address to the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

"In Illinois, we don’t hide from the truth, we embrace it and lead with it," Pritzker said. "Banning books is a devastating attempt to erase our history and the authentic stories of many. Students across this state deserve to see themselves reflected in the pages of stories that teach and entertain."

"I'm proud to support House Bill 2789 and ensure that Illinois' libraries remain sources of knowledge, creativity and fact," he added.

State Sen. Laura Murphy, D-Des Plaines, a sponsor of the legislation, noted that Illinois once was home to Ray Bradbury, whose novel "Fahrenheit 451" is a warning against censorship, book banning and book burning.

"Coordinated campaigns to banish books run contradictory to the principles our country was founded upon," Murphy said. "Our First Amendment protects not only our rights to speak but the right to access resources from the school or public library that are free from censorship that comes from disapproval by select individuals or groups who dislike a book's content."

Across the country, the American Library Association tallied 681 attempts in 2021 to ban more than 1,600 library titles, primarily books written by or about people of color or LGBTQ individuals.

That number is all but certain to increase if legislation approved last month by the Republican-controlled Indiana Senate is similarly endorsed in coming weeks by the Republican-controlled House and eventually signed into law by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Senate Bill 12 would establish a statewide, statutory process for the parent of any student enrolled in a public or charter school to challenge the placement of any school library book at any time for any reason.

Under the plan, the complaint initially would be reviewed by a certified school librarian who must decide that either: the book be removed from the library; the book be restricted to an age-limited section of the library; or the complaint be denied through a written response to the parent.

If the complaint is denied, the parent could appeal first to the school principal, and then to the school board, who each would have the same options of leaving the challenged book on the shelf, restricting it or removing it.

The measure also specifies schools could not make available any book deemed obscene or harmful to minors, which generally comprises material that appeals to a prurient interest in sex and considered as a whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

In addition, a school employee no longer would be entitled to claim an "educational" defense if ever prosecuted for knowingly or intentionally disseminating material found to be harmful to minors.

Supporters of the proposal, sponsored by state Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, claim the shelves of Indiana school libraries are filled with books and other materials containing "bad," "sickening," "nasty," "raw pornography," citing lists compiled by conservative parent activists in Indiana and elsewhere.

In fact, the majority of the material parent activists identify as "pornography" consists of nonfiction narratives and novels that merely include scenes of sex, drug use or racism, along with illustrated puberty guides, such as "Let's Talk About It: The Teen's Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human."

Nevertheless, Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, a 2024 Republican candidate for governor, said she supports the effort to empower parents to seek to remove books from Hoosier school libraries.

"The school library should be a place for learning, not a license for grooming," Crouch said. "We must fight the political and progressive takeover of our schools."

Senate Bill 12 is awaiting action by the House Education Committee.