Senate lawmakers passed a bill Tuesday that would strip teachers and school librarians of a legal defense against charges that they distributed harmful material to minors.
Senators debated the legislation for roughly two hours, with supporters of the bill arguing that it closes a loophole, and opponents expressing fear that it will criminalize teachers and librarians and have a chilling effect on the types of books available in schools.
Under Senate Bill 12, if a prosecutor charged a teacher or school librarian with disseminating material that is harmful to minors, the school teacher or librarian would not be able to argue that the material had educational value as a defense. The measure also establishes a process for parents to file complaints over inappropriate materials.
Sen. James Tomes (R-Wadesville) authored the bill in response to concerns from parents who claim that pornography is rampant in schools. Tomes wrote similar legislation in recent years that failed to pass.
When asked by Sen. J.D. Ford (D-Indianapolis) about what school corporations had pornographic material on their shelves, Tomes could not provide specifics. Neither Tomes, nor the bill's second author Sen. Blake Doriot (R-Goshen), named specific titles of books that were both found in schools and obscene in nature. They encouraged lawmakers to visit them at their Statehouse desks if they wanted to see examples of such material.
Sen. Michael Young (R-Indianapolis), a co-author of SB 12, described the unidentified books at Tomes’ desk as “really bad, sickening — no one in this room would show this to their young child and feel it was a good thing to do.”
Tomes said parents provided research to him about pornographic materials found in local schools. He named the far right Northern Indiana group, Purple for Parents — an organization that promotes conspiracy theories and believes schools are teaching LGBTQ identities and sexualizing children.
Tomes said he hadn’t personally found any such books in schools.
The bill passed the Senate in a 37-12 vote largely along party lines. All Democrats who were present voted against the bill, with three Republican Senators – Ron Alting, Jon Ford and Veneta Becker – joining them in opposition.
The bill now moves to the House for consideration.
‘A chilling effect’
When asked by Ford if he believes LGBTQ material is harmful to children, Tomes did not answer the question directly.
“That's a broad statement, because if you're talking about maybe explaining the lifestyle is one thing, but the books I'm talking about, Senator Ford, these books are just full bore graphic pictures and illustrations,” Tomes said.
Ford also asked Tomes if he believed this bill could have a chilling effect on the types of material students can access.
If schools are providing harmful materials, “I hope it does have a chilling effect,” Tomes said, “I hope it's enough of a chilling effect that they will come to their senses.”
Ford referred to a recent survey of Indiana parents conducted by Gallup that indicated that most are satisfied with the subject matter taught in their schools. Tomes countered that he believes many parents don’t know what happens inside their schools.
Senator Rodney Pol (D-Chesterton) criticized the legislation for allowing parents to file complaints over material that is “inappropriate,” which could lead to a flood of politically motivated grievances. He also criticized the bill for not requiring parents to complete the complaint procedure before attempting to file criminal charges.
Pol said current law already makes it illegal to provide minors harmful or obscene material. He said he agrees with the intent to create a process for parents to file complaints. But he said the word “inappropriate” is not defined.
Pol said removing “educational” from the statutory defense allowed for teachers and school librarians will have a negative impact on what materials schools offer.
“That's about as un-American as it gets. We're going to chill you into doing what we want. This is about moving the cultural and political war to the libraries,” Pol said. “This is about telling the librarian if you don't get rid of those books that I don't like, I'm gonna see if I can get you put in jail.”
Sen. Scott Baldwin (R-Noblesville) said that while many schools may not make pornographic materials available to students, “some of them do have a problem.” He said the intent is not to target libraries, but to close a legal loophole.
“You could take something that would be illegal to hand to a child on the street — I would go to jail if I handed this to a child on the street — but if I was in a school building or in a library, it would not be illegal,” Baldwin said. “And that's what this bill is trying to do, is try to correct that loophole.”
Baldwin said the complaint process in the bill would give parents a means to have their concerns heard by school administrators and school board members.
Sen. Andrea Hunley (D-Indianapolis), a former principal, said she supports parents having a voice, but she has concerns over the process outlined in the legislation.
“I think that the complaint process that we already have in place is working,” she said. She also questioned why the legislation allows parents to file complaints over “inappropriate” materials, instead of “pornographic.”
Because librarians and other school staff members may fear that a certain book could be construed as inappropriate by some parents, they may avoid stocking libraries with or teaching texts dealing with historical issues like slavery, Jim Crow laws and the Holocaust.
“And then we also have to think about our books that are dealing with tough modern issues, you know, racism, and sexism and mental illness and suicide and even assault, these books are more likely to be axed,” Hunley said. “We know this because we’re seeing it.”
Contact WFYI education reporter Lee V. Gaines at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @LeeVGaines.