A ban on book bans? Teachers, students call on PA lawmakers to make it happen

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From behind a podium adorned with often challenged books, Central York School District teacher and author Patricia Jackson made it clear how important fighting censorship is to her.

“On Sept. 7, I had a stroke,” Jackson said Tuesday at the Capitol Building in Harrisburg. “But I’m here standing before you because it is important to me that you understand the importance of children and their right to read.”

Jackson was one of about a dozen speakers calling on lawmakers to pass two bills introduced earlier this year aimed at protecting books from being removed from library shelves for political and ideological reasons.

Central York School District teacher and author Patricia Jackson calls on lawmakers to act on bills against library censorship in Harrisburg on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023.
Central York School District teacher and author Patricia Jackson calls on lawmakers to act on bills against library censorship in Harrisburg on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023.

School libraries have become an increasing target of parental rights groups who claim “sexually explicit” material is freely available to school children across the country.

Groups tracking book challenges, like the American Library Association (ALA), have reported that many challenged books are often related to books about racism and the LGBTQ community.

“Children must be allowed to exercise their right to choose and to see themselves in the great literature of the world and in the history books — even if those lessons are uncomfortable and difficult,” Jackson said.

Rep. Paul Friel, D-26, Chester County, drafted House Bill 1506 to set a standard book challenge policy for school districts across the state and give Pennsylvanians a way to report suspected “soft censorship” if they believed books were being restricted without officially being banned.

More: Amid book banning efforts, House bill takes aim at stopping PA school library censorship

Senate Bill 926, from Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, D-17, Delaware and Montgomery counties, would require public and school libraries to either adopt the ALA’s Bill of Rights that indicates materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval or develop its own written statement to that effect.

Cappelletti's bill, modeled after a law passed in Illinois in June, would also preempt municipalities from cutting funding to local libraries if they adopt this policy.

"The discourse on the rise of book bans also distracts us from what our mission as a Commonwealth needs to be: we must build up our community resources, make knowledge more accessible, and provide the public with places to indulge their curiosities and challenge their perspectives,” Cappelletti said Tuesday.

Central York is one in a growing number of Pennsylvania school districts that have stirred controversy over book restrictions.

A list of diversity education books and other materials were banned in Central York in 2021, but a student-led protest soon led to the district reversing that decision. The district also riled community members after banning two books earlier this year, but a later change in policy returned those titles to shelves as well.

More: Central York Supt. contacted lawyer with firm that advises on controversial school issues

Last July, Central Bucks School District passed a library policy allowing any resident to challenge a book in any of the district’s libraries. The policy led to over 60 challenges being filed earlier this year.

The library policy was one of several points raised in a federal complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that Central Bucks created an anti-LGBTQ environment filed on behalf of seven students by the ACLU of Pennsylvania last October.

More: Central Bucks School District orders librarians to remove two LGTBQ+ themed books

“Our kids are truly heartbroken that some of their favorite award-winning books are at risk for removal,” Central Bucks parent Kate Nazemi said Tuesday.

“We must balance a parent’s interest in guiding their child with the school’s mandate to educate every student. Every family must retain the right for their kid to read high quality, age-appropriate literature freely and according to their interests in every school district in the commonwealth,” Nazemi added.

Both bills have been moved into committees. The House reconvenes Tuesday and the Senate reconvenes on Oct. 2.

This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Pennsylvania eyes bills against library book bans