A newly introduced bill would remove any book that is deemed harmful or offensive to minors from public schools or libraries. And, it would force public schools and libraries to enact policies that ensure that minors do not view “harmful materials” on public computers.
The bill was introduced to the state Senate at the end of January by three Republican Senators: Andre Jacque of DePere, Romaine Quinn of Cameron, and Cory Tomczyk of Mosinee, none of whom responded to WORT’s request for comment.
Under the bill, public schools and libraries would have to take steps to prevent minors from accessing books or art that depict nudity, sexually explicit conduct, sadomasochistic abuse, physical torture, or brutality, that are “harmful to children when taken as a whole.”
The bulk of the bill concerns internet use by minors, and would require institutions to either equip computers with software that block websites deemed harmful or enact a policy that keeps minors from gaining access to harmful materials.
The bill would also apply to physical books. Under the bill, all schools would have to publish their curriculum and instructional materials to parents. If a parent objected to any material being taught, they would be able to pull their child out of class.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard of Madison says that she is opposed to the bill for a variety of reasons, including the increased strain it would put on teachers.
“At a time when we are already not funding our public institutions adequately, how is it that overstretched teachers and librarians are supposed to even be able to do this,” Agard says. “Even though I think it’s a really bad idea, if this bill were to become law, there certainly is not the resources available for them to comply with it.”
Agard adds that schools already monitor what books and resources students have access to, and that the bill would ultimately only harm students’ learning.
“Books are a powerful way of telling the stories of the world around us,” Agard says. “Kids of every background should have the right to learn about their culture and identity and experiences as well as (those) of other people. They should be able to see themselves reflected in those books, and they should be able to also see the experiences of other people who have been wronged as our society has grown and changed over generations.”
So far, two groups have registered against the bill, the Wisconsin Library Association and the Wisconsin Council of Churches. The Wisconsin chapter of the National Association of Social Workers has also registered on the bill. Marc Herstand with the Wisconsin chapter says that, the way the bill is written, it could be used to prevent students from learning about important historical events.
“So nobody wants kids to see porn, okay,” Herstand says. “Let’s say that right at the beginning. However, the way the bill is written, we have some concerns that it would limit the ability of students of public schools to get information about the Holocaust, slavery, the Middle Passage, things that have been done to Native Americans, and other holocausts that have happened around the world.”
A similar bill was introduced last year, but that bill did not make it past committee. Reporting from the Wisconsin Examiner revealed emails from two of the authors of that bill, and the topics that they were seeking to ban, including gender identity issues and enduring racial and cultural stigmas.
Last year, a suburban Milwaukee school district removed seven books from their school libraries, including “Queer: The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide” by Kathy Belge and “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson, reports the Wisconsin Examiner. The district also changed their student privacy rights by beginning to email a student’s parents their library borrowing records on a weekly basis.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone is the Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. She says the bill is part of a larger trend to restrict books from public schools across the country.
“We are seeing elected officials pick this up as a political wedge issue,” Caldwell-Stone says. “So we are seeing legislation like this bill being introduced in states all across the country. We are tracking well over 100 bills that are attempting to limit young people’s access to all kinds of information and ideas, whether it’s through library books or internet access or materials on the internet. Primarily it’s on the grounds of these books that deal with the lived experiences of LGBTQ persons or Black persons are somehow inappropriate or not in the tastes of some people in the community.”
According to a report from PEN America, a national nonprofit that advocates for free expression, 138 school districts across the country enacted book bans last school year. That affected almost four million students.
In Wisconsin, six school districts banned 29 books in the 2021-2022 school year.
That report also showed that many of the books banned in that time period addressed LGBTQ themes or had prominent LGBTQ characters. Additionally, 40% of individual books banned prominently featured a character of color.
Caldwell-Stone says that schools and libraries are already required by the federal government to filter “harmful or obscene” content, meaning that at best, this bill is unnecessary.
“Some of the definitions (of harmful) are problematic because they seem to be from the Constitutional guardrails that have been imposed by the courts to protect access to information about reproductive health, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and stigmatize the material in a way that limits young people’s access to materials that they actually have a constitutional right to view,” Caldwell-Stone says.
The bill was introduced late last month and sent to the Committee on Mental Health, Substance Abuse Prevention, Children, and Families, where a public hearing for the bill has not yet been set. Senator Agard says that if the bill were to pass the Republican-led Legislature, the bill would almost certainly be vetoed by Governor Evers.
Photo courtesy: Tom Hermans / UNSPLASH