(WHTM) — Communities across the Midstate have seen strong divisions over what books should be allowed in schools. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are introducing legislation, and parents are voicing their support — and fears.
Midstate Republicans like Rep. Tom Jones, who represents parts of Lancaster and Lebanon counties, are arguing that too many books in schools are inappropriate.
“Sexually explicit content is intentionally being made available to children,” Jones said. “We are here to protect our children.”
And lawmakers feel parents should have more say.
“We are here to give parents a tool so that they can help fight, get those materials out of their schools,” Rep. Barbara Gleim (R-Cumberland County) said.
On Wednesday, Jones unveiled a website geared towards parents with information about books with what he calls “sexually explicit content” which could be available to students.
Two bills in the state legislature also address this issue, HB 1659 and SB 7. Under those bills, schools would need parents’ explicit permission for their children to access certain materials, but Jones maintains this is not a ban.
“Neither bill would remove any books from any school or library,” he said.
However, Lancaster parent Jamie Beth Cohen said that the “opt-in” model is too restrictive.
“I think the legislation goes too far,” she said. “Frankly, because a lot of parents just don’t have time to read the paperwork that is sent home to them so if they don’t opt their student in, their student is blocked from a lot of books.”
Cohen also worries this legislation could be a step toward book bans
“What I don’t want to see is any other parent controlling what is available to anyone else’s student,” she said.
Dauphin County Moms For Liberty Chair Emily Kreps said this is not a ban because kids can still get the books in public libraries and book stores — just not in school.
“Parents challenging books at a school board are not a book ban,” Kreps said. “What we’re looking for are setting commonsense, age-appropriate standards…to keep sexually explicit content out of the libraries.”
However, Cohen argues, “Sexually explicit material is a subjective term.”
As a survivor of sexual assault, Cohen adds that content is not the problem.
“Books did not harm me. A person harmed me and books saved me,” she said.
Cohen also questions whether some of the books lawmakers list have actually been found in school libraries.
Lancaster Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El (D) has the same question.
“I’ve never seen a book, anything like what they’re describing in the school library,” he said.
Smith-Wade-El said outrage over these books is part of a larger effort to target marginalized communities.
“Black people exist. Queer people, trans people exist. And our literature information history about these communities is a vital part of a child’s education because we are a part of the world that these children are going to live in,” he said.
Kreps pushes back on Smith-Wade-El’s claim.
“There can be books that feature homosexual characters, trans characters, without having sexually explicit content,” she said.
Still, Smith-Wade-El said limiting access is doing students a disservice.
“I also think we are really giving our young people short shrift in terms of their ability to pass and evaluate information,” he said.
Cohen also objected to lawmakers’ use of the word “obscene” to describe some of the content in books, saying obscenity has a legal definition that these books do not meet.
“None of the books they brought out today meet the definition of obscene or pornographic,” she said. “If the lawmakers believe they are they should challenge those through the legal mechanisms that are available to them.”
Under federal law, it is illegal to transfer “obscene matter” to anyone under 16. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Supreme Court established a test to determine whether the matter is obscene, commonly known as the Miller test. Content has to meet three criteria:
- Whether the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, finds that the matter, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interests (i.e., an erotic, lascivious, abnormal, unhealthy, degrading, shameful, or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion)
- Whether the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, finds that the matter depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way (i.e., ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted, actual or simulated, masturbation, excretory functions, lewd exhibition of the genitals, or sado-masochistic sexual abuse)
- Whether a reasonable person finds that the matter, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value
abc27 also reached out to House Republicans to find out whether the books they listed as containing “sexually explicit content” have actually been found in school libraries in Pennsylvania. abc27 is waiting for a response.