OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma lawmaker wants to give parents the right to compel public school libraries to remove books that contains objectionable content of a sexual nature or addresses sexual preferences or sexual and gender identity.
Under Senate Bill 1142, if just one parent objects to a book it must be removed within 30 days. If it is not, the librarian must be fired and cannot work for any public school for two years. Parents can also collect at least $10,000 per day from school districts if the book is not removed as requested.
Critics of the measure say it’s unconstitutional, potentially causing chaos by giving a single parent the power to strip school library shelves. They also said the measure is targeting LGBTQ+ books.
State Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, though, said parents and grandparents of public school students have been complaining for a couple of years now about books with sexual content on school library shelves. He said the books being promoted to school children are different than those in bookstores or even his local public library.
A few of the books he said he has concerns about include the “Trans Teen Survival Guide,” “Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities, “A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns,” and “The Art of Drag.”
“I just think that those are overly sexualized,” Standridge said. “I think parents and grandparents, guardians should have a say on whether their kids are exposed to those books. If they want them, they can take (their children) to their local library.”
While he acknowledged all the books on the list address LGBTQ+ issues, Standridge said he hasn’t seen any examples of heterosexual books that fall into the category. However, if a school was loaning out “Fifty Shades of Grey,” his bill would cover that as well. He also said he’s not worried that schools would have to also remove “The Bible,” for example, given that the Old Testament’s “Song of Songs” contains graphic sexual depictions, because he contends that schools don’t have Bibles on library shelves.
Standridge said if a district refuses to remove a book, a parent would have to sue and get an arbiter.
“Most likely these things will end up in court,” Standridge said. “My guess is the schools won’t comply and the parents will have to seek injunctive relief. That will be up to the trier of fact. They may well disagree with the parent and say reasonable parents would want their children to be exposed to transgender, queer and other sexually-related books. I would doubt that.”
Morgan Allen, center director at Oklahomans for Equality, which advocates for LGBTQ+ individuals and their families, said similar bills have popped up in Virginia, Missouri and Texas, but have been defeated because they’re unconstitutional. However, she said that hasn’t stopped similar legislation efforts.
She also said LGBTQ+ books do not sexualize or groom children.
“These books are there to give our kids the language that they need to express how they are already feeling, and that’s it,” Allen said. “These books are not there for anything else other than to affirm and show the kids their love for who they are, and that there are other people out there like them, that they are not alone. And if we take those books away from their libraries, then we’re saying that their schools and the people who are in those schools don’t see them for who they are, and that they are alone in those schools. And they’re not alone.”
She said though such measures are “absolutely harmful” to LGBTQ+ youth, it’s even more harmful to have legislators speaking out, condemning student-lived identities.
“It’s sending negative messages to our young people, telling them that they can’t be who they are, that they should be ashamed of who they are,” Allen said.
She said 92% of LGBTQ+ teens reported that they hear negative messages in school, which increases suicidal ideation. Bills like this are a “death sentence” to youth, Allen said. She said nearly 1 in 4 Oklahoma LGBTQ+ youth surveyed reported that they had attempted suicide, compared with 7% nationally.
In a statement, the Oklahoma Library Association said it is “disappointed with” Standridge for filing the legislation without first contacting them. They also said the bill is duplicative because statutes already allow for a parental complaint and review process for any content in a school library. They also urge legislators to contact them if they have any concerns or questions regarding their local school library.
State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, said locally elected school boards are already empowered to make decisions about school library content. He said they have exercised that authority, for instance, by banning explicit books and ones that contain nudity.
He said he’s concerned that the measure gives one single parent the sole power to decide whether a library can possess a book and fears it will be a “slippery slope” that invites chaos because it could impact any book that contains the word “sex.” He said it also ignores the fact that schools have diverse student bodies.
“They say on the other side that they’re trying to stop indoctrination,” Rosecrants said. “This looks to me like it is indoctrination. When you’re trying to say what somebody should or shouldn’t do or somebody should or shouldn’t read, isn’t that the epitome of that?”
Rosecrants said in the past, “asinine bills” like this wouldn’t have advanced, but that’s changed recently, and this measure could potentially make it to the governor’s desk.
“I think it’s just trying to feed into the fearmongering that it looks like the GOP really is going for here,” Rosecrants said. “My big thing, and it’s strange that a Democrat should be saying this, is shouldn’t we just leave these decisions to local (school) boards? It looks to me like this is some type of government overreach, massive when it comes from the party of smaller government. It blows me away.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.