In “sneaky move,” Indiana lawmakers revive contentious library materials language

The provisions would make it easier for parents and community members to challenge school library materials.

By: - April 27, 2023 11:39 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)

In the final hours of the legislative session, Republican state lawmakers resurrected a much-debated ban on materials deemed “obscene “or “harmful to minors” in school and public libraries.

Both the House and Senate voted largely along party lines to allow library language to be inserted into House Bill 1447. The measure now heads to the governor for final consideration.  The House tally was 70-27 and the Senate vote was 39-10.

The underlying bill addresses third-party surveys and evaluations given to K-12 students. The new provision was cobbled together behind closed doors earlier this week in a conference committee.

Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D-South Bend (Photo from the Indiana House Democrats)

The bill requires school libraries to publicly post lists of books in their collection and create a formal grievance process for parents and community members who live in the district to object to certain materials in circulation.

As part of that process, school boards must review those challenges at their next public meeting. An appeals process must also be established if officials don’t agree with the request.

Language in the proposal also seeks to remove “educational purposes” as a reason that schools or district board members could claim legal protection for sharing “harmful material” with underage students. The charge is a felony.

Public libraries would not be affected, however, despite other proposals debated earlier in the session that would have expanded the language’s reach. Additionally, the bill only applies to public and charter schools, not private schools.

Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D-South Bend, called the last-minute conference committee insert a “sneaky move.” 

Under the bill, parents and community members can only request review of certain works that are alleged to be “obscene” or “harmful to minors” — and current state law already bans such materials from being accessed by underage students.

Those terms also have very specific definitions in state code that a challenge would have to meet.

Obscene materials must, as a whole:

  • describe or represent, in any form, nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sado-masochistic abuse
  • appeal to the prurient interest in sex of minors
  • be patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable matter for or performance before minors
  • lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors

“What concerns me is that this is just one of those bills that a lot of people have really strong feelings on … and now we’re sort of letting a conference committee that hasn’t been able to take public testimony … I really think this is kind of an example of the wrong way we want to do this policy,” Dvorak said Thursday during a House Rules Committee meeting. “If you want to bring this bill before the House and let us work on it, that’s one thing. But shoving this through the backdoor sends an incredibly bad message to the public that’s really, legitimately concerned about a lot of aspects of this.”

“This is part of what makes the public dissatisfied with the way business is conducted,” he continued. “I don’t think there was a need to do it this way. And that’s why we have the committee process set up. And when you pass bills that make half the state incredibly angry, in a way that doesn’t allow the representatives who represent those people to actually offer amendments on the bill, it does a disservice to the institution.”

But Rep. Martin Carbaugh, R-Fort Wayne, emphasized that different versions of the library language were the subject of more than eight hearings of public testimony and legislative debate earlier in the session.

“I can appreciate the process questions on this … but I take a little exception with the ‘sneak’ comment, because this process is pretty open. This is being streamed live,” Carbaugh said, referring to the rules committee meeting.

Several hours later — as the final bill was debated in full chambers — Republicans maintained the language “will protect our children from sexually explicit and obscene material while they’re in school.”

“Parents cannot access the school libraries — except for maybe at an open house. They do not have the ability to go to the library every time with their children. They cannot see the books in their children’s desks. It is myopic, short-sided at best, to say otherwise,” said Rep. Becky Cash, R-Zionsville. 

Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, doubled down that the bill “is not about being different” or “banning ideas.”

“It’s about one thing — and that is the indecency and the obscenity that we already defined in Indiana code, and we say if that is what’s entering into the classroom, we need to have more transparency,” he said. “This is giving parents greater transparency with what’s in their libraries.”

But Democrats pushed back, saying it’s up to parents to monitor what materials their kids access.

“All of us struggle with what children should be exposed to and when. And we particularly struggle with the fact that children can be exposed to — what you might consider to be rude behavior or disgusting behavior or maybe against your sexual beliefs — they’re going to get that one way or the other,” said Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis. “The issue is how they’re going to get it. On the street? Or are they going to get it in the school, in the classroom?”

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, added that the bill empowers parents “who may be a victim of tunnel vision — an alarmist, a purist” to “impose what they think on others.”

“I think the problem is parenting,” he said. “I think there are parents who have poor communication with their children. They don’t discuss things. … Be a good parent … protect your child, but don’t try to determine how to raise another child in another household.”

A bill with library language advanced from the Senate but died in the House earlier this session without a hearing. The House Education Committee instead seemed intent on reinserting similar language from that measure — Senate Bill 12 — into another bill.

Although House legislators heard more than four hours of mostly-oppositional testimony on the amendment, a vote was never held. There was no explanation on why not. That previously left the library provision abandoned from any moving legislation.

Many Indiana districts already have processes in place for parents to request review of books and other educational materials. School libraries also have the ability to prevent certain students from checking out particular books.

But some Hoosier parents contend their local school boards have rejected their challenges of certain materials. Republican state lawmakers agreed with those concerns, saying the current book removal process “isn’t working” at the local level and now warrants statewide legislative action to require “transparency between schools, libraries and communities.”


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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.