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AFT-NH Testimony in Opposition to SB 523 (relative to the regulation of public school library material)

AFT-NH Testimony on SB 523 relative to the regulation of public school library material

From Debrah Howes, President AFT-NH

Thank you, Chairman Ward and Members of the Senate Education Committee,

My name is Debrah Howes. I am president of the American Federation of Teachers – New Hampshire. I am here to speak on behalf of our 3700 members across the state. Our members include preK through 12 public school educators and support staff, university faculty as well as town employees. I am here today to testify in opposition to SB 523. And despite the impression one might get by reading the text of SB 523, the people in my union are focused on teaching children to read and write, not on forcing inappropriate books into children’s hands.

Now is a time when we should be focusing on real solutions to make sure our Granite State students can learn and thrive in our public schools. We should be focused on making sure they all feel they are welcome and connected to their school community. In particular, this Legislature should be focusing on ensuring that each public school has enough resources to provide every student individual attention from the teacher, learning and behavior support for those who need it from trained paraprofessionals, school counselors and nurses, quality learning resources and all the other components of a robust public education. Instead, we get a bill that will divide communities, pitting families against each other, and make it easier to remove books from school libraries.

This is not the New Hampshire way where we highly value our individual freedoms. We see ourselves as different from the rest of the country, where nearly 250 years since our country’s founding, some Americans are still attempting to restrict others’ basic freedoms. Today, thousands of books in school libraries and classrooms have been caught up in a torrent of censorship. Public schools have become a cultural battlefield when they should be insulated from politics so they can focus on providing children with a strong, well-rounded education.

This bill is carefully crafted to make anyone who opposes wholesale censorship and book banning and stands up for the rights of students to access a wide variety of materials look like they are somehow on the wrong side of this issue. But a careful reading of the bill shows why that impression is mistaken. The bill opens with a graphic catalogue of the kinds of content this bill’s authors deem obscene. It’s pretty disturbing how this bill dwells so much on defining graphic material. What’s even more disturbing though, is the damage it will do in our schools. It will take away parental voice and local control. The sneaky way it broadens the definition by adding subjective categories harmful to minors and age-inappropriate material until that could apply to almost anything. The way it demonizes, instead of supporting, reading.

The question of course, when descriptions of obscenity are this broad and this subjective, is, “Who decides what meets the definition?” Well, in this bill, it’s one person, the school principal, who decides. That’s right: SB 523 gives the principal or their designee the sole power to investigate parental complaints and determine if access to specific material should be removed or restricted for all students in the school. The principal. Not your elected school board. Not a committee of parents, school librarians, and voters, like some districts have. One person only: The principal. What an attack on local control and parent voice. What an invitation for one person to instill fear into teachers and school librarians, to control what your child reads and learns, to impose their own moral values on a whole public school and community.

Then there are the consequences if the complainant doesn’t get what he or she wants. The bill creates a system where complainants can go to court if a school doesn’t follow the book-banning complaint process or fails to enforce book bans, and get $1,000 for each violation, as well as costs and reasonable legal fees. The bill also puts teachers’ careers at stake if they don’t abide by any book ban decreed by the principal, ensuring a chilling and intimidating effect on teaching—something else to drive people away from the profession just when we have record teacher shortages!

The ultimate irony, here in a state with such a tradition of local control and individual liberties, is that this bill represents big government intruding into families' personal decisions. If a parent doesn't want their child to read a certain book, then that parent can make that decision for their own child. The government shouldn’t be doing that. The government shouldn’t be empowering censorship. Nor should the complaint of one parent control what all students can read, as would be the case under this bill. One individual or one group shouldn’t have the right to impose their beliefs on others. School officials are government actors. As such, they have a First Amendment responsibility: It’s their duty to ensure that no particular viewpoint or belief is allowed to determine what students can learn and read. In fact, a federal judge recently blocked an Iowa school-book-banning law on First Amendment grounds (and for its vagueness, which is certainly a flaw that this New Hampshire bill shares).

The torrent of censorship across the country is reaching a point that is frankly, ridiculous. One school district in Florida just removed the Merriam-Webster dictionary from their library shelves, to obey a state law that bans books with descriptions of "sexual conduct." What are we coming to? Does New Hampshire want to go there? This kind of government control is not the New Hampshire way.

Finally, and I know that my words will be twisted, but there are some books in school libraries that can be literally life-saving for a young person. For example, a book about surviving childhood sexual abuse. Or about realizing you’re gay. Or about questioning the rules of the religion into which you are born. For some kids—I’m talking age-appropriate books here—being able to read such a book tells them they are not alone, they are not evil, they are not worthless.  

But today we live in a climate where people, sometimes ones who don’t even have a child in school want to control what all students read or see.  We live in a climate where legislators would rather obsess about what books are in the school library, than worry about how many children don’t even own any books at home. Many kids don’t. That’s why our national union the AFT, in partnership with First Book, has given away 9 million books to students and families, and is on track to distribute 1 million more by next summer. Last year we gave away 8,000 books right here in NH. Teaching children to read is the most fundamental responsibility of schooling. We should be focused on getting books into kids’ hands, not banning them.

Government control and censorship? That’s not what we want to teach our kids.

We urge you to find SB 523  Inexpedient to Legislate.


Debrah Howes

President, AFT-New Hampshire



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