Tensions rise at Indiana Statehouse over bill targeting “harmful” library materials for minors

The GOP-backed bill drew more than four hours of heated committee testimony before advancing

By: - February 16, 2023 7:00 am

The book, “Gender Queer,” authored by Maia Kobabe, was included in the debate about material deemed “harmful to minors” in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Indiana Statehouse. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Tensions rose at the Indiana Statehouse Wednesday after a bill targeting materials deemed “harmful to minors” in school libraries was rolled back — and then amended again — in committee.

Language in the original version of the bill, authored by Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, sought to remove “educational purposes” as a reason that public schools and libraries could claim legal protection for sharing “harmful material” with underage students. That includes books and other materials deemed to be obscene, pornographic or violent.

An amendment filed by Senate Judiciary Committee chairwoman Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, was adopted before testimony began on the bill, striking language that would make librarians criminally liable for distributing “harmful” materials to minors.

Numerous parents who testified pushed back, demanding that lawmakers reinstate language from Tomes’ original bill. 

Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville (Photo from Indiana Senate Republicans)

They argued that students should not have access to “raw” and “disgusting” works, pointing to school library books that deal with sex education, drug use, violence, sexual abuse and gender identity. They maintained, too, that school boards do nothing when parents complain about specific titles.

Testimony was later paused for the committee to adopt, along party lines, an impromptou amendment to bring back the provision removing the “educational” defense for school libraries and teachers. Colleges and public libraries could still use the defense against a charge of disseminating harmful material to minors, however.

The latest draft of the bill passed 7-4 from the committee and now heads to the full Senate.

Advocates for schools and libraries contend the issue goes beyond claims about pornography in libraries or legal defenses available in state statute. 

More broadly, they said the issue stems from “fundamental differences” in values and opinions over what material is “appropriate” for Hoosier youth.

“I’m worried that librarians are going to stop collecting materials because they’re afraid of prosecution. They’re afraid of being taken into a criminal process,” said Chad Heck, representing the Indiana Library Federation. “We need to preserve this defense so that our librarians feel safe to represent the diverse values of our communities and patrons and students in our schools.”

The latest version of the bill

Under the bill in its current form, a local prosecutor could decide to charge a K-12 school teacher or librarian for giving harmful material to minors, meaning the educator could not argue in court that the material has educational value.

Matter or performance harmful to minors

Sec. 2. A matter or performance is harmful to minors for purposes of this article if:

(1) it describes or represents, in any form, nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sado-masochistic abuse;

(2) considered as a whole, it appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors;

(3) it is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable matter for or performance before minors; and

(4) considered as a whole, it lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

But they could still argue that the material has literary, artistic, political or scientific value as a whole. 

As amended, the bill would also require school libraries to publicly post lists of books in their collection and create a formal grievance process for parents to object to certain materials in circulation.

Current Indiana law already outlines criteria that has to be met for a book to be considered illegal.

But Heck and others said the bill could embolden some prosecutors across the state to go after teachers and librarians if parents believe the books available to their children are harmful.

“If prosecutions do come from this law, should it be passed, they’re not going to survive a court — a jury is not going to find a teacher or a librarian guilty of having obscene materials or content harmful to minors in our collections, because we don’t have those types of materials in our collections,” Heck said.

He added that grievances are more appropriately handled by local school boards: “Sometimes people aren’t happy with the outcomes, and the result of that should be an election.”

Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, joined Democrats in voting against the bill. She said Tomes was “not happy” with the amended bill and is the reason the committee should “slow down” and ”revisit this issue.”

Tomes did not comment Wednesday on the latest draft of the bill, but said his intent was not to censor or ban books.

“If you have these books … put them where these kids can’t get them,” Tomes said. “I’m just trying to see that our kids can at least get through school and still have a level of innocence about them.”

A similar bill from Tomes failed in the 2022 session after K-12 librarians and educators argued they would be unfairly criminalized.

Anti-CRT bill likely dead — for now

Meanwhile, the Senate Education Committee met for less than 30 minutes Wednesday after a bill that seeks to ban “critical race theory” from being taught in classrooms was removed from the agenda.

Senate Bill 386, authored by Richmond Republican Sen. Jeff Raatz, would limit classroom discussions about race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation and other factors. The bill states teachers could not “compel, promote or indoctrinate” the belief that one race is superior or inferior to another, for example.

Indiana teachers and education advocates rallied at the Statehouse one day earlier to demand that lawmakers abandon Raatz’s proposal — as well as multiple other divisive “culture war” bills.

Raatz did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Indiana Capital Chronicle about why the bill was removed from the schedule, or if it will still be heard before the committee next week.

The bill must pass out of committee before the deadline next week. Language from the bill could still be revived in other legislation before the end of the session, however.

Four other bills did advance from the committee on Wednesday, including a proposal requiring schools to adopt “science of reading” curriculum, as well as those that seek to automatically enroll all eligible students into the 21st Century Scholars program and require Indiana’s high school seniors to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Other bills on the move

Two other bills unanimously advanced from the House Education Committee Wednesday; one that would require students to pass a personal finance course before graduating high school, and an omnibus bill that tweaks school data reporting requirements and other education policy matters.

Three more bills in the House Education Committee will be up for votes on Monday.

One measure, House Bill 1447, addresses third-party surveys and evaluations given to K-12 students. Under the bill, schools would be required to provide parents with at least two separate notices, giving them the chance to opt their child out of such surveys.

Schools must also post a copy of the survey on their website, according to the bill.

Bill author Rep. Donna Schaibley, R-Carmel, said she’s targeting surveys that “have to do with feelings,” not academic success or career aptitude. The proposal only applies to surveys conducted by third-party vendors.

Rep. Donna Schaibley and Chairman Brad Barrett listen to testimony during a hearing in January 2022. (Photo by Monroe Bush for Indiana Capital Chronicle)

“This issue was brought to me by parents who were concerned about third party vendors that were capturing personal, identifiable information about feelings and beliefs of students in their surveys,” Schaibley said. “This bill is for transparency for the parents and the families, just to see what is actually being surveyed.”

The bill is reminiscent of another that failed to pass in the 2022 session. 

The earlier measure would have required schools to get parental permission before administering any mental, social-emotional or psychological services (SEL) to a student, or before asking a student to participate in a “survey, evaluation or personal analysis” that attempts to affect a student’s “attitude, habits, traits, opinions, or beliefs.”

John O’Neill, with the Indiana State Teachers Association said the state’s largest teacher’s union supports the privacy component in the bill but has “concerns” with a different provision that requires schools to establish grievance procedures.

“We just want to avoid overly burdensome litigation prospects and blaming educators for certain groundless accusations, in many cases,” he said. “The bill has some positives on privacy issues and structures, but we still have concerns about the general approach to what’s being done to the evaluation and survey language.”

ISTA and other education groups additionally opposed House Bill 1591 due to a provision that could open up the state’s Choice Scholarship school voucher program to children in pre-K, as young as age 5.

A separate measure, House Bill 1609, would allow the Indiana Department of Workforce Development (DWD) to award a diploma to adult learners who demonstrate high school level skills through a competency-based test. DWD is charged with creating that assessment.


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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.