Indiana Senate passes bill that would remove obscene books from school libraries

(Margaret Menge | The Center Square) – The Indiana Senate passed a bill Tuesday aimed at removing what the legislation called obscene material from schools, and it would allow the criminal…

(Margaret Menge | The Center Square) – The Indiana Senate passed a bill Tuesday aimed at removing what the legislation called obscene material from schools, and it would allow the criminal prosecution of school librarians and other school staff for disseminating “material harmful to minors” or for exposing children to a performance harmful to minors.

Senate Bill 17 specifically would remove the defense to prosecution that K-12 schools now have in state law.

The bill refers to a section of state law that says something is harmful to minors if it, “describes or represents, in any form, nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sado-masochistic abuse; considered as a whole, it appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors; it is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable matter for or performance before minors; and considered as a whole, it lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.”

“It’s not about guns, it’s not about communism, this is about raw, filthy, nasty literature,” said Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, the author of the bill, in response to a Democratic senator who mentioned that a teacher had testified before the committee saying the bill would result in the removal of books from school libraries that address communism.

Another Democratic senator said the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“It sets the bar too high for most books to be considered harmful,” said Sen. Faddy Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis. “If these books do not rise to the level of prosecution, what does this bill do?”

The bill is similar to a bill Tomes introduced last year withdrew it, saying it didn’t have enough support.

In the last year, an increasing number of parents have spoken out at school board meetings around the state, objecting to what they termed as sexually explicit passages in library books and often reading some of those passages aloud. The meetings have become heated in some places, like the Carmel Clay School District, that school boards have canceled meetings and suspended public comment.

At a hearing Jan. 19 before the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development, several parents spoke in support of the bill, with one brandishing a book by author Sherman Alexie and complaining his daughters were forced to read passages from the book out loud in class.

“I am not for censorship. I’m against it. But I am for discretion,” said Brett Carpenter, whose children attend schools in the East Noble School Corporation in Noble County. “I am strongly against prohibition, but I don’t want them serving alcohol for lunch in my girls’ middle school. I am strongly in favor of our Second Amendment rights, but I don’t want little kids taking firearms to school, Ok?”

Carpenter said he met with the teacher and the principal when one of his daughters came home with the book and showed him the passages describing sexual activity, but his other daughter came home with the same book a year or two later.

“I thought it was a rogue teacher,” he said. He said he began to understand that the book was part of the curriculum, and said he thought the book was adopted by the school not in spite of its explicit passages, but because of them.

“I like this bill,” he said. “We just want what is considered obscene 500 feet outside the school is considered obscene inside the school.”

A representative of the Indiana Library Federation spoke in opposition to the bill at the same hearing.

“School librarians are professional, licensed community partners,” said Chris Mitchem, of Bose Public Affairs Group. “Our primary issue with the legislation is the whole array of opinion amongst parents [about] what they would or would not like their child to read.”

He said librarians are concerned the bill, if it becomes law, would subject them to Level 6 felonies for material in the libraries where they work.

While the bill removed schools and certain public libraries from the list of those entities who can be prosecuted for giving obscene materials to minors, it adds universities to the list of those who have a specified defense to prosecution.

SB 17 passed with a few Republicans joining most Democrats in voting no.

The bill now goes to the Indiana House, where it will be sponsored by Reps. Michelle Davis, R-Whiteland, and J.D. Prescott, R-Union City.