Indiana lawmakers abandon ban on ‘harmful’ library materials

March 9, 2022 GMT
Members of the Indiana House of Representatives attend the last day of legislative session Tuesday, March 8, 2022, at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. (Jenna Watson/The Indianapolis Star via AP)
Members of the Indiana House of Representatives attend the last day of legislative session Tuesday, March 8, 2022, at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. (Jenna Watson/The Indianapolis Star via AP)
Members of the Indiana House of Representatives attend the last day of legislative session Tuesday, March 8, 2022, at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. (Jenna Watson/The Indianapolis Star via AP)
Members of the Indiana House of Representatives attend the last day of legislative session Tuesday, March 8, 2022, at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. (Jenna Watson/The Indianapolis Star via AP)
Members of the Indiana House of Representatives attend the last day of legislative session Tuesday, March 8, 2022, at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. (Jenna Watson/The Indianapolis Star via AP)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A provision that aimed to restrict Indiana students from accessing “harmful materials” at libraries was killed for a final time after lawmakers voted down the language in the last minutes of the Legislative session Wednesday.

Republican lawmakers made the last-minute decision to ditch the provision, which was inserted in a bill that originally sought to modify sentencing procedures for inmates.

That was after they defeated other contentious education proposals earlier in the legislative session. All were part of a push by Republican lawmakers to make school curriculum transparency a top priority amid the national conservative movement against teaching concepts in K-12 schools such as critical race theory. The concept has become a catch-all term for the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.

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Senators killed the bill 21-29 despite House members earlier voting 65-32, largely along party lines.

The language would have removed “educational purposes” as a reason that public schools and libraries could claim legal protection for sharing “harmful material” with minors. That included books and other materials deemed to be obscene, pornographic or violent.

Democrats argued that the language would lead to a ban on books of educational value that are only deemed “harmful” or “offensive” by some. They also noted that libraries and schools already have a process in place for contesting and removing concerning materials.

Rep. Matt Pierce, a Democrat from Bloomington, said the provision defied the First Amendment and would create a “chilling effect.”

“You’re going to have people work in public libraries, schools, educational institutions — they’re going to be nervous that somebody is going to come after them because they don’t like something in a book. And then they might be on the hook,” Pierce said. “What they’re going to do is they’re going to stay away from anything that might remotely offend someone.”

Democratic Rep. Tonya Pfaff of Terre Haute added the language would institute “a backdoor book ban,” which she said could force librarians to have to guess which materials are appropriate.

Republican Rep. Chris Jeter of Fishers pushed back, saying the proposal “sends a clear message that we’re going to protect kids” from materials they shouldn’t have access to.

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“It’s going to move material that should be (for adults) to an adult section where kids cannot get their hands on it without their parents,” he said.

Lawmakers in the Senate did not debate the bill before voting it down. Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said they had “several different reasons” to reject the proposal, noting that the bill serving as a vehicle for the language “started to take on a lot of water” as last-minute additions were made.

“Any bill has a barb or two,” Bray said. “The bottom line is, when you add a lot of ideas, sometimes a bill gets too heavy to move forward.”

Republican Sen. Jim Tomes of Wadesville maintained in January that his original version of the proposal would not change current law, which already outlines “strict criteria” that has to be met for a book to be considered illegal. Instead, he said his bill ensured that “repugnant” and “absolutely disgusting” materials would not be accessible to K-12 students.

Tomes’ measure cleared the Senate last month, largely along party lines. But the bill later died after it failed to receive a vote from the House education committee.

GOP senators additionally declined to revive any portion of a separate, widely-debated bill that sought to place broad restrictions on teaching about racism and political topics in Indiana after the Senate stalled the measure last week.

The proposal’s language was rolled back several times in response to an outcry from teachers and other critics who maintained that the bill would amount to “censorship” of classroom instruction and curriculum.

It stipulated that schools would be barred from teaching that one group is inherently superior or inferior to another, that one group should be treated adversely or preferentially, and that individuals, by virtue of their traits, “are inherently responsible” for the past actions of others who share their traits.

It also would have ensured that parents could access their school’s learning management system and allowed them to review any other learning materials used in their child’s classroom upon request.

Republican senators killed a similar bill in January that would have prohibited K-12 teachers from including or promoting certain “divisive concepts” in classrooms. It also included a provision aimed at stopping the “dissemination of material harmful to minors.”

The decision came after Republican Sen. Scott Baldwin of Noblesville, who authored the bill, drew widespread condemnation when he said teachers must be “impartial” when discussing Nazism and other political ideologies, although he later walked back his comments.

Senate Democratic Leader Greg Taylor praised the defeat of the proposals but cautioned that they could reemerge in the next legislative session.

“I think the teachers did a great job being here. But if they’ll bring it this year, they’ll bring it back again a year later,” Taylor said. “So teachers, don’t don’t sleep on it.”

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Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Smith on Twitter.