Education , Culture & the Family

Ray Carter | February 21, 2023

School library book-rating system clears committee

Ray Carter

Children’s access to school-library books would be limited to age-appropriate material, with routine review of library content required, under legislation approved by a state Senate committee.

State Sen. Warren Hamilton, R-McCurtain, said the legislation is “an effort to address the concerns of parents and students statewide about offensive or obscene content coming into (schools) or being available to the children through the medium of school libraries.”

Senate Bill 397, by Hamilton, would require public schools and public libraries to appoint a committee to “conduct an inventory of print and nonprint materials and media located in their libraries.” Following that review, material would be classified into one of four categories in public schools: elementary, junior high, “under 16,” and “juniors and seniors.”

Libraries at schools serving grades five and below could not include books rated above the elementary level, and schools serving students in grades eight or younger would only be allowed to have books designated as “elementary” or “junior high.”

The legislation also states, “Beginning July 1, 2024, no print or nonprint material or media in a school district library, charter school library, or public library shall include content that the average person age eighteen (18) or older applying contemporary community standards would find has a predominant tendency to appeal to a prurient interest in sex.”

“The intent of this measure is simply to make it so that if there’s something that’s obscene, for example, that the children are not able to access that through school libraries or public libraries,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton noted there is a long-standing three-pronged test to determine if something is obscene that would guide local officials during the review process.

State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, suggested the bill would restrict children’s access to standard textbooks.

“Are we, through this three-pronged test, going to be banning parents or children from being able to check out basic anatomy or biology books that would potentially be used in sexual education or comprehensive sex ed?” Hicks asked.

Hamilton said biology books would remain available at age-appropriate levels and noted there have been glaring examples where books in school libraries have violated obscenity standards.

“There’s an example out of Stillwater where a parent got up to read from a library book that was available in the school library and the news beeped out his entire recitation from that particular book,” Hamilton said. “So if you can’t air it on the 10 o’clock news because the FCC has deemed it obscene, then clearly it doesn’t need to be in the public-school library.”

State Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa, raised objections similar to those voiced by Hicks and also suggested local school staff would need greater oversight.

“On ‘good faith’ each of these entities is going to conduct the inventory, and then on good faith the designations are going to be applied, is that right?” Dossett said.

Dossett also suggested the bill would strip parents of the right to determine what library materials their children access. Supporters noted parents would be able to check out materials from public libraries that they want their children to read.

State Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, noted the school-library issue is one that “parents are paying attention to and are really engaged in at the moment.”

“I have previously opposed banning books. You all know that,” Pugh said. “That is not what this bill seeks to do. This bill seeks to create a set of standards that is appropriate, school by school, grade by grade, and include parents in that process.”

SB 397 passed the Senate Education Committee on a 10-2 vote that broke along party lines with Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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