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New Indiana law could see school librarians charged with crimes over materials harmful to minors

This year’s national trend of conservative groups and elected officials trying to crack down on what they view as library materials that are harmful to minors hasn’t spared Indiana.

In fact, Indiana was one of at least four states this year that enacted new laws allowing school librarians to be charged criminally if library materials are deemed harmful to minors.

In Arkansas, another of those four states, public libraries recently banded together and filed a federal lawsuit challenging the law.

The Indiana General Assembly passed a bill, signed into law by Governor Eric Holcomb, that allows school librarians to be charged. The law also requires schools to create an online catalogue of all library materials, and to establish a process by which parents can file a complaint about a book they feel violates the law.

But Tara White, director of literacy for Elkhart Community Schools, oversees all library staff in the district. She says she isn’t worried about the new law. The school system already has a complaint and appeal process, and it has no materials that meet the law’s four criteria for material harmful to minors.

The criteria, which already existed in Indiana law, are:

  • If it describes or represents, in any form, nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sado-masochistic abuse;
  • Considered as a whole, it appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors;
  • It is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable matter for minors
  • And, considered as a whole, it lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

White says there has been some confusion in the community regarding what types of materials parents might be able to have removed from school libraries under the new law.
“The definition of material harmful to minors does not have anything to do with, or make any statements about, books that address controversial topics or protected classes of people like LGBTQ,” White says. “That’s not part of material harmful to minors, so those types of books, unless they had other things that helped them meet the definition, would not be something that would fall under the category of being prosecuted for.

“We’re a public school. We accept all students no matter what their race, religion, gender identity is, so we make sure that our libraries reflect all of that.”

Elkhart Public Library Executive Director Lisa Guedea Carreno says she’s been very concerned about the trend, including at the local level. She recalled how a month ago, a member of Purple for Parents, a far-right conservative group, appeared before the Elkhart County Council to make the false allegation that the library’s collection includes pornography that’s available to children.

That came after Elkhart County Commissioners in January voted 2-1 to pass a nonbinding resolution supporting an Indiana Senate bill on the issue. That bill, which passed the Senate but died in a House committee, would have removed the exemption from distributing obscenity that schools, libraries and museums now have under the law.

In the legislature’s final hours, language from that bill made its way into another bill that spared public librarians but still allows for prosecution of school librarians.

Carreno, who drove to Indianapolis and testified against the Senate bill, says the library isn’t changing anything about its policies or collection.

“I have instructed my staff to continue doing your job in the best way you can, in collecting material that is reviewed and recommended by experts across a whole range of topics, and continue to collect things that represent diverse perspectives,” Carreno said. “We have diverse perspectives that make up our service area.”

Carreno says she expects conservatives will continue targeting public libraries locally and in Indianapolis.

“They sort of looked at her and said, why are you telling us this?” Carreno said of the Purple for Parents member’s appearance before the council. “Well the county council appoints two of our board members and I believe there’s a push to get them to appoint people who are maybe not so amenable to libraries and maybe don’t understand the First Amendment.”

Carreno says such groups specialize in taking small excerpts of books out of context rather than looking at them “as a whole,” which was the U.S. Supreme Court’s standard for defining obscenity and what’s harmful to minors in State of California v. Miller in 1973.

“These folks specialize in taking excerpts out of context, out of larger works, and holding those up as evidence that something is porn.”

In fact a school library in Utah recently removed the Bible after Utah passed one of these laws.

“Frankly, as a pastor’s daughter, I can do the same, excerpting things from the Old Testament that are pretty darn explicit,” Carreno says. “So if you want to play that game, you’re going to eventually end up banning the Bible.”

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).