In the waning hours of the most recent session of the General Assembly, a last minute amendment was added to HB 1447 to address the non-existent “problem” of obscenity in school libraries. As I wrote at the time:
There just isn’t a scourge of obscene material floating around our school libraries. The idea that we need to adopt a law creating a procedure to deal with obscenity in school libraries is one of those “the question is an accusation” kind of dynamics. “They wouldn’t need a process if there wasn’t a significant problem would they?”
The language slipped into the bill requires a school to have a process to handle complaints by a parent or community member requesting that a school library remove material that is obscene or is harmful to minors under the respective statutory definitions for each. “Harmful to minors” largely tracks the obscenity language but is slightly broader, so I’ll quote it here:
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.
It’s good that the new language limits the complaint process to community members or parents of students. It’s also good that the standard is basically an obscenity standard rather than merely something that a person finds offensive.
But the obnoxious element is that it requires the process include a public hearing at the governing body at its next public hearing. So, it encourages grandstanding and, by setting a limited time table for the hearing, discourages deliberation.
Our local school’s upcoming board meeting includes a policy for requesting that material which is obscene or “harmful to minors” (as defined in the Indiana criminal code) be removed from the school libraries. It also includes a related request form. The Indiana legislature’s mandate that schools adopt such policies is largely a waste of time. Like I said, there simply isn’t a plague of obscene material in our school libraries. Passage of this law was not an effort to solve a problem but, rather, part of an effort to create the impression that a problem exists.
But, the General Assembly requires it, and so the school has to comply. On first glance, the proposed policy seems reasonable. If any obscene material or material “harmful to minors” is present, this would be a way to get it removed. On the other hand, I think the policy imposes reasonable barriers that will deter grandstanding about material that does not rise to the legal level for removal. In particular, it forces the person requesting removal to very specifically identify the portions of the book that are obscene and explain why they think so. (Also, it limits requests to people who either live within the boundaries of the school district or have kids in the school.)
Going forward, it’s probably more important than it was to get a good idea of how school board members might approach issues of censorship. To some extent, the school board has always had the power to remove materials it regarded as objectionable. Most of boards would have likely relied on the education professionals and librarians they employ to make a considered decision on such issues. But the legislature now requires more of a direct pipeline from a complaining person to the school board because the new law requires that the “response and appeal procedure established … must require the governing body to review the request at the next public meeting.” Because this gives moral scolds a better platform for demagoguing against material they don’t like, knowing how school board members will react if the issue arises would be beneficial.