Safety measure or book banning tool? K-12 obscene materials bill sparks heated debate

By: - February 20, 2023 6:30 am
A library shelf filled with books

House lawmakers are weighing a bill to remove staff and teachers in K-12 schools from exemptions to state obscenity laws, potentially requiring school officials to remove books proactively or face potential misdemeanor charges. (Getty Images)

It wasn’t a physical school library book that sent Betsy Harrington into a state of alarm about high school reading material. It was an app.

Harrington’s son, a student at Hillsboro-Deering High School, had found a book on Sora, an app that gives students in participating schools access to thousands of e-books to borrow on their own. 

The book, “The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School,” was a 2022 National Book Award finalist, described as “a sharply funny and moving debut novel about a queer Mexican American girl navigating Catholic school while falling in love and learning to celebrate her true self.” But on the first page, Harrington’s son discovered a number of swears and coarse language. 

“He took screenshots. He was shocked and he knew immediately that this was not for a school library,” Harrington told lawmakers. Administrators disagreed, and offered a different solution: Harrington could opt her children out of the library app instead.

It’s a dispute that is becoming more common: on one side, a set of parents who oppose certain content in school reading materials; on the other, educators and opposing parents who say those objections are attempts to censor marginalized authors and topics. 

This year, the conflict could have legislative implications. House lawmakers are weighing a bill to remove staff and teachers in K-12 schools from exemptions to state obscenity laws, potentially requiring school officials to remove books proactively or face misdemeanor charges.

Since 1979, schools, museums, public libraries, and governmental agencies have been shielded from charges for distributing or providing “obscene” materials, unless those materials have already been deemed by a superior court to be obscene. 

House Bill 514 would redefine that exemption, specifying that “school” means “institution in the university system or community college system of New Hampshire” and not K-12 schools. The change would mean employees of K-12 schools could be subjected to charges under the obscenity law even if the materials in question had not been previously adjudicated by a state court. 

Under state law, content and materials are obscene if their predominant appeal is “an interest in lewdness or lascivious thoughts” according to contemporary standards in each New Hampshire county. The content must also depict or describe “sexual conduct in a manner so explicit as to be patently offensive,” and have no “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” 

A person can violate the law if they knowingly provide materials that meet the definition of obscene, which can result in a misdemeanor charge. 

The bill would also require all New Hampshire school boards to adopt complaint resolution policies laying out exactly how parents can challenge materials in school that they believe to be obscene. Currently, those processes are voluntary.

It also allows the departments of Education and Health and Human Services to initiate challenges to alleged obscene materials before state superior courts, an authority currently only given to the Department of Justice. 

Opponents decried the proposed language as a tool to allow parents to ban books and other materials from school libraries and classrooms. Supporters said the bill would empower parents who are disturbed by materials and have found little recourse from school officials.

Rep. Glenn Cordelli, the bill’s prime sponsor, argued the bill has been misconstrued. 

“This bill has been referred to in some places as banning books, but that’s not the intent of this bill,” he said. Instead, he presented the bill as a means to provide parental control.

“I’m submitting this bill because I realized that our state obscenity laws exclude education,” he said. “And I don’t think that that contributes to having schools as a welcoming environment, a safe environment for our children.” 

He added: “As parents, we do much to protect our children from all sorts of things to provide a safe environment. We have parental controls on TV, movies have ratings, (we) do all sorts of things.” 

For Harrington, her objections to “The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School” soon extended to other books in the Sora app. She began researching book titles on websites such as Rated Books and Rated Reads – which review books based on their level of profanity and sexual content – and finding those titles in the Sora app. She said she was frustrated by the response she received from both school district administrators and school board members, who stood by the use of the app. 

Harrington said the books she has objected to pose risks to students who might read them and not be willing or able to process them. She opposes “This Book is Gay” – a nonfiction book by Juno Dawson that seeks to provide a guide to questions about gender and sexuality – due to what she said were references to dating apps and guides to sexual acts. 

“I opted my kids out,” she said, referring to the library app. “But I am here for all the other kids.” 

Conservative education advocate Ann Marie Banfield, agreed. She said the bill would help parents target graphic novels and other books that contain sexual illustrations and imagery. 

If an adult outside of a school were showing a child those images, Banfield argued, a parent would be alarmed. “I think all of us – (for) some of these pictures – we’d be going, ‘OK, I need to alert the authorities,’ ” she said. 

But others countered that the books have been vetted by national library associations, and that a district’s decision to block access to those books should be made on a family-by-family basis, not a school-wide basis. 

“What we don’t want is for one parent who objects to a book in the library or in the classroom to be able to decide for all children in that school what your child is able to read,” said Deb Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers of New Hampshire. 

Under current state law and school board policies, parents are allowed to object to materials being shown to their children; if an objection is made, schools and teachers must provide an alternative instruction for those children in particular, but may continue providing it to the other students. 

Attempts to remove or restrict books from school libraries have increased in recent years nationally, according to the American Library Association. Opponents of New Hampshire’s bill noted that many of the books on the association’s list of top challenged books feature either LGBTQ authors or authors of color.

Rep. Heather Raymond, a Nashua Democrat and a member of the Nashua Board of Education, noted the relatively low levels of diversity in the state. In Nashua, the state’s most racially diverse city, keeping books that center people of different races, sexuality, or gender identities is important, she argued. 

“Kids deserve to read books about others that look and experience things like them,” Raymond said. 

To Mary Wilke, a retired teacher in Concord, the current student-centered exemption processes work well. 

As a fifth grade teacher in Concord, Wilke once gave a homework assignment about dinosaurs. One of the parents objected to the instruction “because the notion that dinosaurs existed millions of years ago conflicted with her religion,” she recalled to lawmakers. 

Wilke and the parent had a friendly and respectful conversation, she said, and Wilke assigned the student different material. 

“No one suggested that nobody else get to read about dinosaurs,” she said. “And I just felt like that’s the way, usually, (these) situations work. Teachers and parents work together as a team. They collaborate for the benefit of the child.” 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]