US Librarians Fear Penalties, Prison over Book Bans

    16 April 2024

    An illustrated edition of Margaret Atwood's book The Handmaid's Tale was released in 2019. The book is widely considered a classic work about the oppression of women. An illustrated version of the book would help it reach teens who struggle with words alone.

    Educators in Clayton, Missouri, needed little debate before deciding to keep copies of the book in high school libraries.

    But Missouri legislators passed a law in 2022 punishing librarians with fines and possible imprisonment for permitting sexually explicit materials on bookshelves. The school system reconsidered the new Atwood edition and later removed it from libraries.

    Tom Bober, librarian and President of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, poses for a photo Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in Clayton, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
    Tom Bober, librarian and President of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, poses for a photo Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in Clayton, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

    Across the country, book bans and attempted book bans are becoming more common. Public and school-based libraries have seen a rise in complaints from community members and conservative activists.

    Now, some lawmakers are considering adding new threats: legal action, high fines, and even imprisonment for distributing books that some consider to be obscene or inappropriate. Obscene means related to sex in an offensive way.

    No librarian or educator has been jailed yet. But the possibility of punishment has led to more self-censorship.

    Already this year, lawmakers in more than 15 states have introduced bills to place severe penalties on libraries or librarians.

    Utah passed legislation in March that empowers the state's Attorney General to enforce a new system that can remove "sensitive" books from schools.

    In Idaho, lawmakers are considering a bill that empowers local prosecutors to bring legal action against public and school libraries if they do not keep "harmful" materials away from children.

    Deborah Caldwell-Stone is director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. She said, "The laws are designed to limit or remove legal protections that libraries have had for decades."

    Since the early 1960s, places like schools, libraries and museums have largely been safe from costly lawsuits or criminal charges. Educators, librarians and other workers who give out materials to children have also been safe.

    These protections began appearing in states as American lawmakers and others debated standards surrounding obscenity. The term was defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973.

    The high court justices found that the First Amendment does not automatically protect obscene materials. For something to be "obscene," it must meet three requirements. One requirement is that the work must lack "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."

    Over time, almost every American state created protections for educators, librarians and museum officials. This prevented "prosecutions of teachers over health and sexuality curriculum, art, theater, and difficult subjects in English classes," says a 2023 report from EveryLibrary. The group, a national political action committee, opposes censorship.

    But last year, Arkansas and Indiana targeted educators and librarians with criminalization laws. And the state of Tennessee criminalized publishers that provide "obscene" materials to public schools.

    Indiana lawmakers took away "educational purposes" as a defense for school librarians and educators charged with giving minors "obscene" or "harmful" material. Doing so are crimes punishable by up two and half years in jail and $10,000 in fines. The law requires public lists of what is in each school library. It also requires libraries to set up a system to respond to complaints about the available materials.

    Indiana's law took effect January 1.

    Diane Rogers is a school librarian who serves as president of the Indiana Library Federation. She said of the new law, "It's putting fear into some people. It's very scary."

    She added that teachers who face charges because of the new law could lose their right to teach, even if they are found innocent.

    I'm Dan Novak.

    Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.


    Words in This Story

    illustrate — v. to explain or decorate a story, book, etc., with pictures

    explicit — adj. showing or referring very openly to nudity, violence, or sexual activity

    inappropriate — adj. not right or suited for some purpose or situation

    censor — v. to examine books, movies, letters, etc., in order to remove things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.

    introduce — v. to present for discussion or consideration

    lawsuit — n. a process by which a court of law makes a decision to end a disagreement between people or organizations

    automatic — adj. always happening because of a rule, law, previous agreement, etc.

    curriculum — n. the courses that are taught by a school, college, etc.