STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 12, 2024…..Amid a historic surge in book challenges in schools and public libraries across the state, some lawmakers are hoping to codify protections to prevent books from being removed from public spaces.
Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro and Rep. John Moran of Boston filed a bill that would prevent book removal “due to personal or political views” in municipal and school libraries, by giving the power to librarians to determine what can be on the shelves.
Book bans have been on the rise around the country in recent years. The most frequently restricted books since 2020 have had to do with racism, sexual content and the LGBTQ+ community, according to the American Library Association.
The ALA reports that Massachusetts had the fourth highest number of attempts to remove books from shelves in 2022, behind Texas, Pennsylvania and Michigan. The association reported 45 attempts to restrict book access in Massachusetts in 2022, and that the most challenged title was “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe.
“We’re fourth in the nation for book bans, attempts to censor materials, which I think many residents were quite surprised — I was surprised by that,” Cyr said at a hearing before the Joint Committee on Education Wednesday. “Books and materials are our most compelling windows to the myriad of human experience and they capture the breadth of knowledge. We cannot allow small minded bans or politically opportunistic censorship to interfere with the right to read.”
Last month, a plainclothes police officer entered a middle school in Great Barrington after someone made a complaint about “Gender Queer” in an eighth grade classroom, according to the Berkshire Eagle, sparking a debate in western Massachusetts about book bans and the role of police in investigating “obscenity” in books.
Cyr and Moran’s bills (H 4229 / S 2528) “relative to free expression” are backed by the ACLU of Massachusetts and other free speech groups as well as the state Board of Library Commissioners and Massachusetts School Library Association. Over a dozen Democrats signed on to the bill, including Education Committee Co-Chair Jason Lewis — though it met some resistance at its public hearing on Wednesday.
Moran brought several books to the hearing that he said were targets of book bans, including “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George Johnson and “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison.
“Obviously, we need to have age-appropriate students reading these books and citizens reading these books. But this bill doesn’t prevent that. If you want to individually have your child not read these books, that’s fine. But parents don’t have the right, or organizations, based on their political beliefs, don’t have a right in the state of Massachusetts to prohibit entire populations from reading these books,” Moran said.
He added that having diverse books in school libraries helps schools be “a welcoming place for students to learn and explore.”
Republican Rep. Kelly Pease of Westfield questioned whether a book like “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which discusses sexual consent and abuse as well as LGBTQ+ topics, is appropriate for schools or “a regular library type of atmosphere.”
Moran responded that the book might be appropriate for students of a certain age, but the bill would leave those decisions to librarians and educators.
Their bill would give power to school librarians and teachers to determine access to “age-appropriate” materials in school libraries — requiring that “school library materials are selected on a school librarian’s professional training and not on political or personal views,” according to Cyr’s office.
To overturn a school librarian’s selection determination, the bill would require a review process by the local school committee “based on clear and convincing evidence that the material is devoid of educational, literary, artistic, or social value or is not appropriate for any student in the school.”
To prevent the removal of materials based on personal or political beliefs in municipal libraries, the bill would require libraries to incorporate the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights into their selection policies. Libraries would also be required to publicly post their updated selection policies, and the bill seeks to protect municipal librarians from retaliation when selections are made in good faith and in accordance with the library’s selection policy.
Currently, there are few protections for school and municipal librarians from retaliation for their selections, and parents and community members complaints’ about a book often lead to its removal from the library.
“As an LGBTQ+ guy, I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, books were an avenue to understand. If you’re feeling something different, they’re an avenue and they’re sometimes the path that educates you so that you’re not doing things like wallowing in your sorrow, or worse,” Moran said. “We need to have open discussions about all topics, including race, including gender. And this book is one avenue to do that.”
Cyr added that data show LGBTQ+ youth are at higher risk of suicidal ideation, and that showing them stories similar to their own or examples of LGBTQ+ adults living healthy lives is a way to support them.
Pease replied that “All Boys Aren’t Blue” was inappropriate for schools.
“I’m going to tell you that ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ is like a pornographic book, and that should not — we don’t put Penthouse letters in schools,” Pease said, referencing a pornographic magazine.
He and Cyr went back and forth several times, interrupting each other.
Cyr, who identifies as gay, argued that there is “hetero-centric” material in school libraries, and every book, not just those involving LGBTQ+ people, should be screened for age-appropriateness.
Committee chairman Lewis cut off the two lawmakers after a few minutes of back-and-forth, asking to move on.
Over the course of the hearing Wednesday, representatives of several civil rights groups came forward to speak.
“Personally, I am horrified that today, in 2024, I have to be testifying in front of a state legislative committee in the United States of America in defense of the right of people to read books,” said Cindy Rowe, president and CEO of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action. “Book bans are tactics designed to control what ideas people can be exposed to, warping our perception of the world around us. Further, book bans are attempts to control our understanding of history in order to whitewash it. Efforts to combat book banning, like this legislation, are how we stand up to authoritarians, white nationalists, and others who would use division as a political tactic to keep us from coming together in a thriving democracy rooted in equity, empathy, and opportunity for all.”
Illinois became the first state to outlaw book bans last summer, and New Jersey is also considering legislation to stop libraries and schools from banning books.
The Massachusetts Family Institute testified against the two bills Wednesday and in an email on Thursday wrote, “Under the guise of preventing ‘book banning,’ radical legislators want to stop local school committees from protecting children from age-inappropriate content at school.”