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Senate probes Illinois officials over law that effectively bans book bans

Sep 13, 2023


New legislation in Illinois banning book bans is about to become law. On Capitol Hill, Illinois’s Secretary of State, Alexi Giannoulias (D), was in the hot seat Tuesday, Sept. 12, testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was defending his state’s new law – HB2789 – that will withhold tax dollars from public libraries that ban or remove books.

It’s the first law of its kind in any state in the nation.

How did we get here? Book bans and challenged books in public libraries and schools aren’t new in the United States. During the Covid-19 pandemic, most children across the country attended school through Zoom, allowing their parents to get a deeper look into their curriculum. Some parents objected to what their kids were learning.

Nationally, many challenged books containing topics such as sexual orientation, gender identity, and racism.

Well-known books including “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Of Mice and Men” have all been challenged in libraries and schools throughout the country for decades for the racial components and controversial language they contain.

According to Giannoulias, when he took office in January 2023, he was met with severe challenges in his state’s public libraries as some taxpaying parents wanted certain books off the shelves.

“As our youth continue to need educational assistance and catching up after the disruption caused by Covid,” Giannoulias explained, “I believe libraries in every single community across this country have had an especially critical role to play in increasing educational opportunities for all Americans.”

Giannoulias testified that under his state’s new law, public libraries in Illinois would be eligible for state funding only if they follow the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which states that books “should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

“The need to stand up and fight for our freedoms and our librarians, especially at this perilous time in our democracy is why I initiated ‘House Bill 2789’ in Illinois,” Giannoulias said. “This legislation, the first-of-its-kind in the United States of America, is a triumph for our democracy, a win for First Amendment rights, and most importantly, a victory for future generations to come.”

During the Sept. 12 hearing, Republicans focused on parents who are trying to ban books that contain pornographic material. Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy (R) read aloud excerpts from the books “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and “Gender Queer: A Memoir” – two of the most challenged books across the country. Both passages contain sexually explicit material.

Straight Arrow News reader advisory: The remainder of this report contains sexually explicit language and descriptions.

Kennedy reads the passage from “Gender Queer:

“The second is another much discussed book. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. It’s called Gender Queer, okay? Let me read an excerpt from that. Quote: ‘I got a new strap-on harness today, I can’t wait to put it on you. It will fit my favorite dildo perfectly, you’re going to look so hot. I can’t wait to have your cock in my mouth. I’m going to give you the blowjob of your life, then I want you inside of me,’ end quote. Now, Mr. Secretary, what are you asking us to do? Are you suggesting that only librarians should decide whether the two books that I just referenced should be available to kids? Is that what you’re saying?”

“No,” Giannoulias said.

“Okay, tell me what you’re saying,” Kennedy said.

“First of all,” Giannoulias said.

“Don’t give me a speech, tell me what you’re asking me to do,” Kennedy said.

“With all due respect, senator, the words you spoke are disturbing,” Giannoulias said. “Especially coming out of your mouth it’s very disturbing. But I will also tell you that we’re not advocating for kids to read porn to Senator Booker’s point.”

“What are you advocating for?” Kennedy asked.

“We are advocating for parents, random parents, not to have the ability under the guise of ‘keeping kids safe’ to try and challenge the worldview of every single manner on these issues,” Giannoulias said.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) also pushed back, saying U.S. senators shouldn’t be the ones who decide what goes in public libraries. However, he’s not sure why taxpaying parents should not have a say as to which books are – or are not – allowed in their communities.

“I want to see if I got the point here,” Graham said. “A public library is supported by public dollars. Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” Giannoulias said.

“Okay, are you telling taxpayers of this country to just ‘shut up’ as all you worry about is your kids,” Graham asked. “Don’t have a voice about how your taxpayer dollars are being spent and what kind of community you’re living in here? Because you’re a parent and you don’t let your three daughters read something, is it possible that the books in question may hurt the community in the eyes of parents? Can a parent, a taxpayer, complain under this theory? Or should they just shut up?”

Democrats’ focus in the Sept. 12 hearing was on parents’ efforts to ban books with LGBTQ+ ideals or cultural references relating to people of color.

“Is there any evidence that says that exposure to certain kinds of books leads to harm to a community?” asked Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono (D). “Does exposure to an LGBTQ+ book somehow cause harm to the reader? Is there any evidence to that effect?”

“Zero,” Giannoulias said.

“No there is not,” said Emily Knox, author and associate professor at the University of Illinois. “What I mentioned before is that books can be windows to learn about other people. So, it might be that you have a friend who is thinking about their own gender identity, and you want to know more and reading a book like that one will help you understand what your friend is going through.”

“Mr. Chairman,” Hirono said, “I should think there is more harm to a young person who thinks that he or she can be shot to death in a school than being exposed to certain kinds of subjects and books.”

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (D) also chimed in, referring to the fact that he found his personal identity while reading books as a young Black child, growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood. 

“We have a country right now that is based in the ideals of a commitment to one another,” Booker said. “We weren’t founded on sameness – same religion, same ethnicity. We were found on big principles of democratic ideals and in a diverse democracy. It is so necessary that we know each other, that we see each other, and that we understand each other. That’s what makes us stronger. And in many ways our schools become areas, especially the ideals of public schools, where diverse people come together for an education. I am suspect of these books being taken out of libraries and schools because I started seeing books that had been there not just for years but for decades, literally generations. Twenty-five, 30-, 40-year-old books on shelves suddenly being taken off. Stunned that they were important to me when I was growing up.”

During the hearing, Secretary Giannoulias said he’s hoping other states will adopt similar policies.

According to the American Library Association, in Illinois, there were 67 attempts to ban books in 2022. Illinois’ governor signed the bill, HB2789, into law in June and it’s set to take effect Jan. 1, 2024.

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