Indiana: Librarians worry about effects of ‘bad books’ bill

KENDALLVILLE — The perception of librarians has changed through the decades. Most kids picture a school librarian as a cardigan-wearing, middle-aged lady who shushes them to a whisper in the hallowed stacks of books.

No one pictures a school librarian as a Level 6 felon.

The exception may be Indiana Sen. Jim Tomes, the author of Senate Bill 12. The bill, among other things, would permit the arrest and prosecution of school teachers and librarians for providing access to “materials harmful to minors.”

SB 12 passed in the Indiana Senate on Feb. 28 on a roll call vote with 37 yeas, 12 nays. The bill moved to the Indiana House on March 1 and received its first reading in the House on March 6. The bill was referred to the Education Committee as House Bill 1130.

The bill has numerous critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Indiana State Teachers Association and Indiana Parent Teacher Association. Criticism centers on infringement of First Amendment rights, the lack of a clear definition for the term “harmful,” the enabling of lawsuits from complaints regardless of merit, and the chilling criminalization, arrest and prosecution of teachers and school librarians for access to materials and just doing their jobs.

Other critics say the bill is censorship and see the bill as a thinly disguised targeting of materials with LGBTQ subjects or themes.

The ACLU is opposed to the bill as an infringement of First Amendment rights: “This bill prevents elementary and secondary schools and non-college/university libraries from raising a defense to existing law which makes it a felony to expose minors to “harmful” material. This bill also strips away protections for material that is disseminated for educational purposes and opens schools up to lawsuits from parents who disagree with any part of the school curriculum or material available in a school library. This unworkable provision presents a serious First Amendment concern.

“Additionally, not presenting a clear definition of ‘material harmful to minors’ raises significant due process and enforceability concerns. The vagueness of the statute could be used to silence protected speech on a multitude of issue areas and has historically been used as a tool to ban sex education material and material about LGBTQ issues from local libraries if community members and local prosecutors find it objectionable.”