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AFT-NH Testimony in Support of HB 1311 - "Freedom to Read"

AFT-NH Testimony on HB 1311

From Debrah Howes, President AFT-NH

Thank you, Chairman Ladd and Members of the House Education Committee, for reading my testimony.

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 support of HB 1311 relative to school district collection development and reconsideration policies.

HB 1311, also known as the Freedom to Read bill, strikes the right balance in recognizing the needs, interests and responsibilities of students, families, and schools when it comes to school libraries. It requires that all school boards adopt clear policies for their district on how they build their library collections and on what steps to take if a parent or guardian feels  there is material in the collection that doesn’t belong there or is accessible to the wrong age level. This is the right balance, respecting the rights and interests of all involved.

  • It respects the rights of students who have a first amendment right recognized by the US Supreme Court to access a wide variety of ideas and information through the materials in the school library. The Court recognized the unique role school libraries play in students’ ability to access to explore materials of academic and literary interest. The standard set by the court is that for material to be included in a school collection, it needs to be of use to a single student in the school. It does not require that all materials be of general interest to all students. The Court recognizes that some challenging materials belong in our school libraries because students have the right to access them and may not be able to independently access them otherwise.
  • Having clear policies adopted by the local school board protects the rights of all parents. While we know that parents can limit what their own children can access, they cannot limit what everyone else’s children can access. Importantly, it keeps challenged material available in the collection until the challenge process is completed and a determination to remove the material has been made. This prevents “shadow banning” where students are prevented from accessing ideas and information, as is their constitutional right, but no due process has been followed. Taking away students’ rights before material has been determined to be unsuitable for the school library would not pass constitutional muster.  
  • It respects the concerns of parents and guardians who want to know what is going into the school library collection and how those decisions are made. It also respects the right of parents or guardians to question the appropriateness of a particular item and requires there be a defined process to look into those questions.
  • Passing this bill keeps the decision making on collections building and how to handle challenged materials at the local level. This is important for three reasons: NH has long acknowledged that decisions about curriculum and materials belong with locally elected school boards, locally elected school boards represent the community and are directly answerable to the community through local elections, and determinations about appropriateness are a local community standard. Indeed, the only constitutionally allowable way to determine that material is inappropriate to remain in the school library relies both on considering the work as a whole and considering local community standards. Locally elected school boards who are directly answerable to voters are much better at developing policies to reflect local community standards than either the state legislature or a board of political appointees.
  • Most importantly, passing this bill provides local school boards with important guardrails for their policies which will keep them within the boundaries of respecting all these competing rights. Most importantly, the bill underscores that materials cannot be removed because of the viewpoint expressed or the identity characteristics of the author or characters.

For students to become enthusiastic readers and lifelong learners, they need access to a wide variety of materials through their school libraries. They need stories where they can see their own life experiences reflected, so they don’t feel like they are strange, broken or alone. They also need stories and nonfiction about people and places totally different from their own experience so they can follow their curiosity to new countries, worlds, and universes.

In poll after poll and in local elections, Granite Staters have consistently said that they support and trust their local neighborhood public school to educate their students. They don’t want politics thrust into the classroom, or in this case the school library by having books removed based on viewpoint or the author’s or character’s identity. Let’s keep decisions on details of policies regarding local collection building and how to handle challenged materials in the hands of those best situated to deal with it, locally elected school boards, but let’s require they all have clear and constitutional policies. It’s what our students deserve, what our school staff deserve and what our communities deserve. 

For these reasons, we urge Ought to Pass on HB 1311.


Debrah Howes

President, AFT-New Hampshire



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