Thank you, Chair Ladd and Members of the House Education Committee, for reading my testimony.
My name is Debrah Howes. I am the president of the American Federation of Teachers-NH. AFT-NH represents 4,000 teachers, paraeducators and school support staff, public service employees and higher education faculty across New Hampshire. My members work with approximately 29,000 of the 165,000 public school students in New Hampshire in one way or another. We also educate thousands of university students. I am writing today in opposition to HB 514, relative to the dissemination of obscene material by schools and institutions of higher learning.
HB 514 is an affront to education, educators, parents, and public school students across the Granite State. It is also an attack on the rights of adults to read, learn and explore culture in New Hampshire. Simply put, HB 514 opens the door to banning books within our public schools. By requiring all local school boards develop a process to resolve disputes about “objectionable or obscene” materials this bill invites complaints and anticipates censoring books and other materials. Nationwide, we have seen laws like this used to limit access in schools to books that deal with a whole variety of topics but most often focusing on race, racism, and the experiences of LGBTQ people. Objectionable and obscene are both subjective terms which make it easy to challenge almost any material as long as you can find at least one parent to say they are offended. While parents have the right to decide what their own children can read, this goes further and lets them decide what ALL children in a public school can read. Good books are meant to challenge the reader’s mind. They are meant to show us things we wouldn’t normally see in our lives. They may change our mind on topics, they may reinforce what we already believe. One thing is for sure; they are crucial to a child’s education.
This is what we know to be true. If we want kids to become readers and love reading, they need to have access to books: in the home, in the classroom, in the school library and in the public library. In fact, that is why AFT has given away more than 1 million books to kids and their parents at community events in the past year through “Reading Opens the World.” Three AFT-NH locals have given away 8,000 books right here in the Granite State. And we know from the excited response on kids faces at these events, to the polling we did with Hart research, that this is what we should be focused on: getting books into kids’ hands, not banning them.
This bill also comes after the material in public universities, public libraries and museums, spaces that are for adults as well as children. It is truly an overreach to try to broaden the obscenity law to include public universities. On the face of it, this bill adds protection to the public universities by including them alongside those institutions with (limited) immunity from prosecution for displaying and disseminating obscene material. However, it turns around and takes that protection away again. If the material is judged to be obscene through an adversarial proceeding, then the staff at a public university, public library or museum could face charges if the material is still displayed or disseminated. This two-step process that allows the commissioner of education to start adversarial proceedings based on complaints that something is obscene is a problem. Again, with the definition of obscene being so vague this leaves our University System, which is responsible for teaching adults, at the risk of frivolous, anonymous complaints, harassment of employees and censorship of material available to adults.
HB 514 is wrong for New Hampshire. It will shrink the world of ideas that our public school students are exposed to. It needlessly pits parents against parents, opens up our schools and colleges to baseless complaints and could lead to books—books that could be key to a student’s educational experience, being banned from schools.
I urge you to vote “no” on HB 514. Thank you for your time.
Debrah Howes, AFT-NH President