Academic Freedom

Georgia Senate Considers Controls on School Libraries and Criminal Charges for Librarians

books on shelves
Jamie Taylor via Unsplash.

By The Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — A proposal that would require school libraries to notify parents of every book their child checks out was advanced by Georgia senators Tuesday, while a proposal to subject school librarians to criminal charges for distributing material containing obscenity waits in the wings.

The measures are part of a broad and continuing push by Republicans in many states to root out what they see as inappropriate material from schools and libraries, saying books and electronic materials are corrupting children.

Opponents say it’s a campaign of censorship meant to block children’s freedom to learn, while scaring teachers and librarians into silence for fear of losing their jobs or worse.

Georgia senators are also considering bills to force all public and school libraries in the state to cut ties with the American Library Association and to restrict school libraries’ ability to hold or acquire any works that depict sexual intercourse or sexual arousal. Neither measure has advanced out of committee ahead of a deadline next week for bills to pass out of their originating chamber.

The state Senate Education and Youth Committee voted 5-4 Tuesday to advance Senate Bill 365 to the full Senate for more debate. The proposal would let parents choose to receive an email any time their child obtains library material.

Sen. Greg Dolezal, the Republican from Cumming sponsoring the bill, said the Forsyth County school district, which has seen years of public fighting over what books students should be able to access, is already sending the emails. Other supporters said it was important to make sure to guarantee the rights of parents to raise their children as they want.

“I can’t understand the resistance of allowing parents to know what their children are seeing, doing and participating in while they’re at school, especially in a public school system,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican.

Opponents said it’s important for students to be able to explore their interests and that the bill could violate students’ First Amendment rights.

“This is part of a larger national and Georgia trend to try to limit access,” said Nora Benavidez, a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and lawyer for Free Press, a group that seeks to democratize the media. “The logical endpoint of where this bill, as well as others, are taking us is for children to have less exposure to ideas.”

The proposal to make school librarians subject to criminal penalties if they violate state obscenity laws, Senate Bill 154, is even more controversial. Current law exempts public librarians, as well as those who work for public schools, colleges and universities, from penalties for distributing material that meets Georgia’s legal definition of “harmful to minors.”

Dolezal argues that school librarians should be subject to such penalties, although he offered an amendment Tuesday that makes librarians subject to penalties only if they “knowingly” give out such material. He argues that Georgia shouldn’t have a double standard where teachers can be prosecuted for obscenity while librarians down the hall cannot. He said his real aim is to drive any such material out of school libraries.

“The goal of this bill is to go upstream of the procurement process and to ensure that we are not allowing things in our libraries that cause anyone to ever have to face any sort of criminal prosecution,” Dolezal said.

Supporters of the bill hope to use the threat of criminal penalties to drive most sexual content out of libraries, even though much sexual content doesn’t meet Georgia’s obscenity standard.

“If you are exploiting children, you should be held accountable,” said Rhonda Thomas, a conservative education activist who helped form a new group, Georgians for Responsible Libraries. “You’re going to find that our students are falling behind in reading, math, science, but they’re definitely going to know how to masturbate.”

Robert “Buddy” Costley, of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders, said the bill won’t solve the content problems that activists are agitated about.

“My fear is is that if we tell parents that this is the solution — your media specialists, the people that have been working for 200 years in our country to loan books, they’re the problem — we will have people pressing charges on media specialists instead of dealing with the real problem,” Costley said.