Book battle continues in state legislature

A display of banned books is in a Barnes & Noble book store in Pittsford, New York, on Sunday, September 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

The culture battle of the books continues in the halls of the state Capitol in Harrisburg.

State Rep. Christopher Rabb, D-Philadelphia, will soon introduce legislation that would set procedures for both banning and requiring books in schools. While the legislation doesn’t specifically mention recent legislation sponsored by Republicans or questions from federal Republican House members regarding books being added to school libraries, Rabb’s bill does address some of the questions raised by Republicans.

According to PEN America, Pennsylvania has banned more books than every other state than Florida or Texas. “Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe” was banned more than any other book in the state. Jesse Andrews’ “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” was also targeted by multiple disticts. Other censored titles statewide include: “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson, “Your Name Is A Song,” by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, “American Street” by Ibi Zoboi, “This Is My America” by Kim Johnson, and “Heather Has Two Mommies” by Leslea Newman.

“Over the last several months, Pennsylvania has become the state with the second highest number of books banned from school libraries and curriculum by school boards,” Rabb wrote in his co-sponsorship memorandum. “These book bans are an attempt to censor educators and restrict the information and educational materials that students can have access to in school. In addition, these effectively unilateral decisions made by school boards are extremely harmful to LGBTQ+ youth and students of color given that the subjects discussed in these so-called “inappropriate” and “explicit” books often discuss many serious and real issues impacting these communities. Moreover, these bans are widely unpopular among teachers and students. Yet, elected school boards continue to ignore public opinion and implement these egregious policies.”

Rabb’s legislation has yet to be drafted, but plans to establish uniform procedures that school boards follow before they can eliminate access to books for students. He wants to require the Pennsylvania Department of Education and school board participate in at least two public hearings on the book in question. The hearings would be moderated by professionals with ample knowledge on the book and its contents, prior to the school board initiating a vote to ban it.

At the state Capitol, state Rep. Chris Rabb speaks earlier this year at a Small Business Advocacy Day news conference.

“This legislation will ensure the voices of a district’s teachers, students, and community members are adequately heard when making these important decisions,” Rabb wrote. “Students should not be subjected to restrictive and potentially hostile learning environments because the school board of their assigned school district made decisions about what books they can and can’t have access to in school.”

In August, Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Bellefonte, and fellow U.S. Reps. Fred Keller, Mike Kelly, Lloyd Smucker and Guy Reschenthaler sent Gov. Tom Wolf a letter asking the governor and Eric Hagarty, acting state education secretary, to investigate parents’ concerns about explicit books — though the letter specifically mentions only one book, “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe.

The federal lawmakers are asking state officials to explain how school library materials are decided upon; how school boards, schools and librarians engage with parents to determine if content is appropriate for children based on age and academics; and if there has been an investigation previously into the issue.

“Pennsylvania schools need to be places where students feel safe and comfortable learning the important academic lessons that will set them up for a successful career and equip them with the tools they need to succeed in life,” the House members wrote. “We need to do everything we can to be a partner to local communities as they work to educate every student and give them the chance to pursue their passion while in school.”

State Rep. Barbara Gleim, R-Carlisle, has introduced a co-sponsorship memorandum for House Bill 2815. The yet-to-be-introduced bill has garnered nine Republican co-sponsors, though text has yet to be drafted. Gleim said she wants to end an exemption in state law that allows school libraries to possess and exhibit any legally obscene, even highly sexual, content.

“Under our current criminal law, no one may publicly exhibit or provide to a minor legally obscene materials,” Gleim wrote in her co-sponsorship memo. “This can include materials which are so shocking as to qualify as sexual bestiality, sadomasochistic abuse, and patently offensive representations or descriptions of ultimate sexual activity. But while this prohibition applies generally across the Commonwealth, our current law also includes a puzzling exemption allowing any library in the state not only to possess these very same materials, but also to exhibit them and to make them available to minors. My bill will remove this exemption for primary and secondary school libraries. To be clear, current law does not prohibit all sexual content whatsoever – only obscene content, as that label has developed under our Constitution. Current law also does not prohibit subject matter which, when taken as a whole, has serious literary, artistic, political, educational or scientific value.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today